Long before the Black Lives Matter movement raised the problem of immoral police (and vigilante) violence, African Americans grappled with its reality and the seemingly impenetrable logic which undergirds it. The mind reels at the justifications proffered for killing a 12-year-old child, or the calculation that finds an officer raining blows on someone’s grandmother, or the science that encourages a man to fire a gun over his shoulder and into a crowd.
Fiction undergirds all of these acts—of furtive movements, reasonable fear, and therapy through violence. So strong is the power of the legitimizing narrative, that even those who are victims of these violent fictions are rarely deterred from crafting justifying fictions of their own. In the 19th and 20th century, the old discriminations against white ethnics—“no Irish need apply”—did very little to prevent those same white ethnics from engaging in anti-black racism. Yet for a starker example, it may well better to look closer to home.
Two weeks ago, the comedian Eddie Griffin was asked about the torrent of sexual assault accusations made against Bill Cosby. “Did he rape these bitches?” asked Griffin. “All of them said the same thing—‘We went to the room.’ Why would you go to the room of a known married man?” Griffin seemed perplexed that Cosby’s accusers did not immediately report being assaulted by a millionaire and one of the most powerful black men in show business. “30 years?” asked Griffin. “I don’t understand that. That’s like a motherfucker robbing me, and I wait 30 years to call the police.”
Close observers of the long struggle against white supremacy will find Griffin’s formulation familiar. There is, off the top, a ruthless unacquaintance with the facts. Cosby has been accused of assaulting women, not merely in hotel rooms, but at his home, at a celebrity tennis tournament, backstage at show in Las Vegas, backstage at The Tonight Show, and on the set of the Cosby Show. It is not very hard to know this—two minutes of Googling will suffice.
But the narrative of cunning “bitches” arriving at the hotel room of a married man has a kind of resonance that drugging women on the set of a family-friendly television show does not. Similarly, the narrative of thuggish black boys in hoodies has a kind of resonance that child-murder does not. In fact, there is no real difference in claiming that a woman in a married man’s hotel room forgoes the right to her body, and asserting that a black boy wearing a hoodie forgoes the right to his. Brutality is brutality, and it always rests on a bed of lies.
Too, it rests on animus. One official of the pirate government of Ferguson joked that dogs might qualify for welfare because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” Cosby’s accusers are “bitches.” Last year an incredulous Damon Wayans tried to understand the behavior of some of Cosby’s victims. “Bitch, how many times did it happen?” asked Wayans. “Just listen to what they're saying and some of them really [are] un-rape-able. I just look at them and go, 'You don't want that. Get out of here.’”
Whether for the thrill of domination or the balancing of a municipal budget, animus justifies plunder. The scorned enjoy no rights that the powerful must respect. And like all powerful elements seeking to sanctify their use of violence, these apologists employ history selectively.“How big is his penis that it gives you amnesia for 40 years?” continued Wayans. Of course Cosby has faced many more recent claims—including the 2004 incident for which he was recently arrested, in which civil claims were first filed in 2005.
No matter. The unspoken logic here holds that there has always been some sort of legitimate system for hearing and adjudicating plunder. In the case of rape, no such system existed 40 years ago, 30 years ago or 20 years ago. It’s arguable that it still does not exist today. In much the same way, no such system existed to bring to the victims of the Chicago police officer John Burge until decades after his campaign of torture began. Burge began torturing black Chicagoans in 1972, and was never convicted by the local courts. Reparations were not granted until last year.
Criminals flourish when no credible system exists to adjudicate the claims of their victims. When asked why they did not report the crimes of Daniel Holtzclaw, a police officer charged with targeting and raping poor black women, many of his victims said the same thing: Who would have believed them? Effectively Holtzclaw had found a hole in the law, and he was only convicted after he deviated from his pattern.
Much like it is impossible to understand the killing of Tamir Rice as murder without some study of racism, it is impossible to imagine Bill Cosby as a rapist without understanding the larger framework. (For instance, it took until 1993 for all 50 states to criminalize marital rape.) Rape is systemic. And like all systems of brutality it does not exist merely at the pleasure of its most direct actors. It depends on a healthy host-body of people willing to look away.
It is always particularly painful to see those who have been victimized by a habitual looking away to then turn around and do it themselves. But what it illustrates is that the line between victim and victimizer is largely circumstantial. There was always some number of black men who invoked Trayvon Martin’s name simply because he was a black male, simply because it could have been them. “It could be me” is a fine starting place for confronting the evils of the world, but a really poor conclusion. If no broader theory of sympathy and humanism emerges beyond one’s mean particularism, then all we really are left with are tribalism and power.
Only tribalism and power can explain the theory put forth by Cosby’s defenders—that some 40 women have joined together in a wide-ranging conspiracy to bring a powerful black man down. Why this plot would target an aging entertainer well past his prime and not, say, the first black president is left unasked. We, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving. There is no virtue in being kicked in the face. The virtue is all in what you do after.