Al Sharpton is Lying: The Useful Meaninglessness of “Accountability”
Commenting on Stephon Clark’s death, The Rev. Al Sharpton said that “Trump should speak out, and there should be policy.” He also, according to the Sacramento Bee, spoke out about the “local authorities’ unwillingness to hold police accountable.”
It isn’t clear at what point in the post civil rights era it became popular to use the phrase “hold them accountable.” But at some point it became necessary and perhaps even required that the phrase be proclaimed publicly and preferably at a podium or lectern immediately after an incident of anti-black state violence. It does, however, now seem to be an indispensable element in the sustained assault against black life.
Holding police accountable seems the perfect nothingness, striking exactly the right balance between meaninglessness and a stroking of the liberal, nationalist ego. The threat moves no one, inspires no action, and comforts those that worry that some significant action might emerge from this or that incident. There will be no riots. Someone said “accountability.” This word, the perfect placeholder and decoy -- a collective sigh weighing down any possible uprising. What exactly does “Trump should speak out” mean, other than nothing — a comforting assurance that the routine of the non-response is in full swing? Who is it convincing except precisely no one? The Reverend said that they were going to let Donald Trump and the whole world “deal with the issue of police misconduct.” It is weeks later and I have not yet felt the earth tremor under his charge. I have felt no groundswell. I expected none. Everyone expected nothing. On reflection, Sharpton’s threat is striking not only because there is no person on the face of the earth that believes this liberal puff, but even this empty threat itself is watered down to the gum bite of “deal” and “issue” and “misconduct.” It is not even screaming menacingly into a void; it is casting bland nothings nowhere.
Still it’s useful. One is always searching for room to pile the bodies. The promise and lie of holding police accountable keeps this space open. It does not matter how many bodies are thrown into the ditch, or that the killers are hustling back to get more on paths made easier, all is good: accountability. The national pastime of publicly destroying black bodies is seen as an unfortunate holdover of the American, once flooding, blood trail, or in Nikki Haley’s brilliant revisionist construction: its “tough history.” (Blood on South Carolina leaves, cotton fields, streets and jail floors are tough). “We live in an imperfect nation,” the state apologist, begins. Though he fails to mention that the imperfection of the ever-perfecting nation is illimitable — no mass of leaden bodies is enough to stretch imperfection past capacity and on into bad. No amount of blood splatter is enough to void the blank check. Imperfection itself is never capable of describing or evaluating a thing, but is set up as an ever-expanding realm where whatever holocausts the heart desires can be placed and stored without damaging the whole. As Obama once chided Rev. Wright, we must not forget all that is right with America. The mendacious promise of holding police accountable operates in this world of black massacre as an imperfection, exception, a stain on an otherwise perfect or ever-perfecting project. It never cleans the stain. It doesn’t try. It beats the resistors back into their boxes and caresses the liberal who, after the loudest screams bleed through her shuttered windows, needs assurance that someone is saying that somebody is saying that something should be done.
The promise of holding the police accountable presumes the benevolence of the violent. We are the only population whose systematic elimination does not arouse suspicion. To think this is deliberate is unthinkable, to consider whether this is calculated is out of the question. No matter its priors, the state and society cannot be suspected of murdering blacks. The fight, where there is one, is a fight to accuse it of negligible homicide, police over-zealousness (the sensitive boys in blue are just too passionate and dedicated to their work). The state does not merely possess the benefit of the doubt — it cannot be doubted. One feels the charges of reverse-racism spinning in the barrels if one clutches one’s purse when the heaving, lurch of American history embodied in a donut-breather follows you home down a well-lit alley. A gun in the hand of a policeman is not really a gun — you must not worry. It is not a cellphone or a toy or a nothing in a black hand — you are safe. We must believe in and be convinced of the moral superiority of the paramilitary or increasingly militarized occupying force of the white supremacist state. All black death since this point and into the future are errors, regrettable casualties of some unnamed war or grand project. Be patriotic, love this project, and be promised accountability at the moment of death if you are black, shake your head and call it a tough history if you are white, do your duty and oil the machine so that we can move on and continue to chase the mystery prize at the end of the journey.
Around sixty years ago people used to imagine the end of all forms of racism in the era of flying cars. Today, Uber is working with NASA on flying taxies and we haven’t even dented lynching. Instead, every fourth page spread of a hunched over corpse is greeted with the same Henry Louis Gates, Jr. faux surprise and we claim to be astonished that this could happen “to any citizen in the United States.” We must recite the pledge: I believe in accountability. Repeat the lie and continue the spell that is America. Like the alcoholic swaying with drink in hand assuring himself and others that he could quit anytime he wants to, the end to racist murder is always around the corner. The slave state has always been the liberator in disguise. The police will always one day be accountable. “We need to have the conversation” the drunks belch out instinctively at the dropping of another dark corpse. As if there was any slow massacre in the history of humanity that has been ever addressed by a town hall panel discussion.
What would we do without the fantasy of accountability? We would have no other option than to examine this strange refrain of black body destruction dispassionately. We would have to ask whether America has truly been all this time befuddled. We would have to admit that we are not being lied to, that we are the liars, and it is a bad lie and an open secret. Nobody is surprised by another body hitting the ground, and nobody is surprised that no one is roused by any calls of no more. The collective shaking of our heads is not a war waged at a perpetually erring society. On the contrary, collectively shaking heads in the wake of anti-black violence defines the society. It is liberal culture, which is always the same to say white supremacist statolatry. Police accountability, like American justice, has always been a bad lie. What is insulting is that it is directed to no one.