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Imperfect Martyrs: When Victims of State Violence Are Problematic

Stephon Clark’s execution at the hands of the Sacramento police on March 18th reignited an all too familiar routine in Black America. Police initiate an encounter with a black person. They assume a threat to their lives where there was none. They fire on harmless black person. Black person dies. The police tell the public that they were in fear for their lives.¬† Black people and allies everywhere are outraged and demand change.

Stephon Clark was the latest black man to be be martyred in this way. In the wake of his death, countless marches and demonstrations testified to his humanity, to his importance to his family and to his community. But something else also emerged in his death–his alleged hatred of and hostility towards black women. His social media pages purportedly attest to his (and his Asian baby mother’s) disdain for black women. I’m not reprinting the offensive comments about black women attributed to Stephon Clark’s Twitter account because I haven’t been able to verify that that was, in fact, his account.

If the misogynoir attributed to him is true, then Clark is not alone as a black victim of state violence who had very problematic views or behavior. The Black Lives Matter Movement, founded by black queer women, worked tirelessly on behalf of Sandra Bland, despite her social media posts that indicated that she may have been homophobic. Black Lives matter also fought for justice for Alton Sterling despite the fact that he was a convicted felon, who had victimized black women and girls. Sterling had been arrested for domestic violence and convicted for impregnating a minor. At the time of his death, he had failed to register with the state of Louisiana as a sex offender.

So what are black women, queer people, black queer women, or other marginalized black people to do when people who hold hostile attitudes to us find themselves victimized by state violence?

In some quarters, the instinct is to simply stay silent in the calls for justice when problematic people are slain in extrajudicial state killings. And to be perfectly honest, I understand the rationale behind withholding your emotional labor and financial contributions on behalf of folks who demonstrated an active contempt for you in life. Fighting for justice is hard enough as it is, without having to advocate for someone who despises you for who you are. Admittedly, I was repulsed at Stephon Clark’s alleged misogynoir, but I’m more disgusted that he’ll never have an opportuity to mature beyond such squalid opinions of black women.

Blackness, as we know, isn’t a monolith. It often intersects with various other marginalized identities–poor, female, HIV positive, disabled, elderly, incarcerated, and otherwise dispossessed. Therefore, when one of these other identities comes under attack¬†by another black person, it can dishearten even the wokest among us. That is a real thing and it must be discussed and unpacked.

However, we cannot simply allow the police or other state actors to kill us with impunity–even if some of us will become imperfect martyrs It plays too closely into the “he’s no angel” trope that white racists use to justify the extrajudicial state killing of black people. This ideology renders the victim responsible for demonstrating they deserved to live rather than holding the state accountable for killing them in the first place.

Because we can never know which of us will have state violence visited upon us next, we must resist the urge to demand that its victims be perfect before we defend them. The police, after all, make no distinction between woke black folks and black folks who have some growing up to do before unloading their weapons into our bodies. Such a demand undermines the core message of Black Lives Matter, which is that ALL Black Lives Matter–even the ones who are imperfect in their martyrdom.