Compliance will not save our lives. Compliance will not save us from being brutalized and debased like U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario was in Virginia. Even when we are forced into a compliant position—handcuffed and prone and kneed like George Floyd was, incarcerated like Sandra Bland was—we may end up dead.
Black and brown people are told in endless ways by fraternal orders of police and their powerful enablers: Comply and survive. The defense attorney for Chauvin has said this in countless ways during Chauvin’s trial, and will likely say it again during his closing statement today: Floyd would have survived if he had complied.
“Daunte Wright, if he would have just complied. He was told he was under arrest,” said Brian Peters, the executive director of Minnesota’s largest police union. “He set off a chain of events that unfortunately led to his death.”
After Nazario was hurt during a traffic stop, Windsor Police Chief R. D. Riddle said, “At the end of the day, I’m glad nobody got hurt. That situation ended in the best way it could have. I wish he would have complied a whole lot earlier.”
A piece in Mississippi’s Natchez Democrat over the summer declared: “Don’t defund the police; retrain the people to comply.” In 2019, the Houston Police Officers’ Union circulated the slogan “Comply Don’t Die. Live to Have Your Day in Court.”
That is an old sentiment. A century ago, the Ku Klux Klan and its powerful enablers delivered a similar message to Black and brown people.
In 1925, Louise Little was expecting to deliver at any moment, when hooded horsemen carrying flickering torches rode up to her wood-frame farmhouse outside Omaha, Nebraska. The Little family had moved to a segregated white neighborhood from the overcrowded strip of blocks allotted to Black people—and Louise and her husband, Earl, had been audaciously organizing for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
“Get that nigger out here, now!” one Klansman shouted, Les and Tamara Payne recount in The Dead Are Arising.
With Earl out of town preaching, an intrepid Louise came outside and faced the armed men. “The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha,” Malcolm X wrote on the first page of his autobiography. After Malcolm was born, on May 19, the Little family complied and left Omaha. Three months later, more than 30,000 northern Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Two centuries ago, enslaved people from the Southwest to the Southeast were given the same message by slaveholders and their powerful enablers. “There should be a perfect understanding between the master and his slave,” one South Carolina enslaver said in 1833. “The slave should know that his master is to govern absolutely, and he is to obey implicitly. That he is never for a moment to exercise his will or judgement in opposition to a positive order.” As early as 1696, the Boston minister and enslaver Cotton Mather instructed enslaved Black people to “be orderly in every thing” and “all your pains will End in Everlasting Joyes,” as he wrote in A Good Master Well Served. “But if you will not be such Orderly Servants,” then “all the Sorrows that you see in this World, are but the Beginnings of Sorrows.”