Police, Oppression and Trauma: Learning to Live and Resist in America

Dr. Maulana Karenga

It is good to rebel; it is right to revolt; and it is morally compelling to confront and resist evil, injustice and oppression in all their forms wherever and whenever we find them. And it is good to confront evil, injustice and oppression in righteous anger, to turn over the tables of the money worshipers setup in the temple; to disrupt their business of oppression as usual in all its economic, political and cultural dimensions; and demand respect for the sacred, not only on high, but also on earth. By this we mean the sacredness of human life, of all human beings as possessors of dignity and divinity and worthy of the highest respect as taught in the sacred texts and teachings of our ancestors.

Indeed, our historic and ongoing battle cry “no justice, no peace” is not only a reaffirmation of our commitment to justice, but also a reminder to the oppressor that he will not find peace in continuing to oppress us, that his business of oppression will not go unchallenged, whether in the temple, worksite, places of education, business, legislation, and policy formation or the endless stretch of streets where we so often encounter his armed representatives in raw and familiar form. And it is also an unwavering affirmation that social justice and social peace are inseparable in our understanding, aspirations and struggle for how the world should work and achieve well-being for all.

Surely, our history and culture of struggle will not allow us illusions about life and death in America. Thus, regardless of the election propaganda and pablum soon to be peddled in pretty corporate packages about America the beautiful, bountiful and blessed, as Langston Hughes reminds us “life for (us) ain’t been no crystal stair”. Indeed, it has been a life of difficult and demanding struggle up from enslavement, lynching, segregation, racist riots and destruction, police violence and systemic violence of various kinds from educational and economic to physical, psychological and social. Thus, learning to live and resist in America is one of the greatest challenges in our lives as persons and a people, i.e., as Africans, Blacks, African Americans, Soul people, a moral and social vanguard that will not be defeated, in spite of the ups and downs in our daily and demanding lives and our ongoing righteous and relentless struggle.

We came into this country head-and-heart deep in the midst of struggle, struggling first to prevent our capture, killing and enslavement; and then on board, to seize the ships, defeat our oppressors, turn the ships around and return home. And we have struggled ever since we hit the beach to be ourselves and free ourselves and leave a legacy of freedom, justice and flourishing for future generations.

There is clearly in this country a history of violence against the vulnerable, especially against us and other peoples of color which has been systemic, systematic, sustained and pervasive. And it recalls again Min. Malcolm’s insightful observation that “In this country, wherever the Black (person) is, there is a battleline. Whether it is in the North, South, East or West, you and I are living in a country that is a battleline for all of us.” In a word, the whole country is a battlefield and battlefront. Indeed, as Paul Robeson also reminded us earlier “The battlefront is everywhere, there is no sheltered rear.”

And at the length and breadth of that battleline, battlefront and battlefield are the armed representatives of the state: the army, the National Guard, the highway patrol, the rangers, the sheriff, the police, etc. We use the police as a general category here because they are the most present, aggressive and disastrous in our daily lives. And they, as representatives of the state, the armed government, have long acted in our community, as Malcolm pointed out, as “an occupying army.” Thus, they are conceived in many places, as not there “to protect and serve,” but rather to “terrorize and suppress.” For their erroneous and racist concepts of our community racialize crime, calling it Black and then criminalize Blacks, calling them real and potential criminals, menaces to society in dire and immediate need of suppression.

Therefore, the police thinking, feeling and acting in this way have turned our lives into a hellish and horrifying stream of tragedies and trauma. And those who passively accept this or actively endorse and support it, are complicit and are ruining the lives of generations of Black people, especially young Black people. For these suppressive actions of the police create in our people not only post-traumatic stress, but also pre-traumatic stress. Such a pre-traumatic stress syndrome or mindset is the reality and result of an ongoing and permanent sense of impending disaster defined by the constant targeting, stopping and frisking, pre-dawn raids, the false arrests, unjust trials and wrongful convictions. And then, there are the beatings, chokings, tazings, kicking and killings. Such daily expectations and experiences of police and criminal justice system patterns of practice brutally interrupt and restrict our sense of security and normalcy in our lives and hang over our heads like a looming tornado before it touches down, reaches us and brings ruin and devastation to our lives.

And still we struggle to deal with it, to anticipate it without panic, passive acceptance or rash and unreasoned response, but deal with it as we deal with diagnosed deadly or life-threatening illnesses, vulnerabilities or situations. For this critical issue is really on all of us. And our response in our organization Us is in line with Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Frantz Fanon, Ella Baker, Amy Garvey, Marcus Garvey and others. For in the context of oppression, there is no real remedy except resistance, no strategy worth its name without struggle, and no way forward except on the battlefield for the right, the good and life-affirming.

The Supreme Court has just given the police added power to suppress us, to stop us without reasonable suspicion, search us, and then use any “evidence” discovered against us. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her powerful dissent even though it will affect all people, it will surely affect people of color more. This spells the end of the “exclusion of tainted evidence” rule and although the “evidence” of our color and presence have been repeatedly used against us and other people of color, this will clearly increase the police capacity to act aggressively and abusively under the color and camouflage of law.

So, as the struggle continues and intensifies and the way forward seems hopelessly blocked and unpassable, we must not despair or be dispirited. On the contrary, we must defiantly refuse to be silent or satisfied with oppression and injustice in any form, never accept it as anything but abnormal, never become accustomed to it, and never lose our righteous anger against it and our unbreakable will to resist and decisively end it.

Indeed, we must find ourselves standing at the crossroads ever and again with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and all our other ancestors so positioned. First, turning toward each other in love, unity and strength, we must then turn around and courageously confront our hunter, harasser and oppressor, call the people to struggle and dare victory, knowing full well there is heavy price to pay and awesome sacrifices to be made, but also a whole ‘nother world of freedom, justice and goodness to be won and shared.


Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies, California State University-Long Beach; Executive Director, African American Cultural Center (Us); Creator of Kwanzaa; and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and Essays on Struggle: Position and Analysis, www.AfricanAmericanCulturalCenter-LA.org; www.OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org; www.MaulanaKarenga.org.