At around 2 pm this past Sunday, 20 year-old Daunte Wright, an African American man, drove through Brooklyn Center, MN, with his girlfriend in the passenger seat. A few miles from where Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, he was pulled over for the what the police said was an expired registration. Kim Potter, a long-serving white female police officer, ran Wright’s information and discovered a warrant for his arrest for having missed a hearing on a misdemeanor gun charge. When the officers attempted to detain Wright, he pulled free to get back into his car. In the bodycam footage, a hand points a gun at Wright. A woman’s voice yells “Taser! Taser! Taser!” A few seconds later, we hear Kim Potter’s voice saying, “Oh, shit! I shot him.” The weight of Wright’s foot on the gas pedal propelled the car forward until it struck another vehicle. Daunte Wright was pronounced dead. His girlfriend was hospitalized with injuries.
The Brooklyn Center Police Department said it was an accident, that the officer accidentally pulled her gun instead of her taser. Potter was initially placed on administrative leave; both she and the police chief have since submitted letters of resignation. Despite curfews, there have been demonstrations and vigils daily since the killing. (For good recaps, see The Guardian‘s coverage.)
It is a terrible truth of this country’s political and moral life that we so often refuse to see the largest and deepest patterns of evil lurking just beneath the surface of default reality. The police stopped Daunte Wright for expired registration (why did the police not moderate traffic-stop practices during the Chauvin trial, or for that matter, forever?). Wright was charged with no violent crimes (why pull a gun on someone not charged with illegal violence?). The shooting was “an accident” (why do officers carry deadly firearms when surely tasers would suffice for situations calling for actual self-defense?).
As typically treated by officials and their supporters, each assault on ordinary people’s freedom to drive, walk, dance, eat, vote or merely breathe while Black is a unique case, an exception. Each state-sponsored perpetrator of violence is portrayed as merely a bad apple, instead of what they are, cogs in a centuries-long program to exploit and exterminate those who stand in the way of white supremacists’ profits.
Could this change? Of course. Human beings made this history and can make a future of reparations and right action. Could that change be catalyzed by open eyes, by an unflinching portrayal of the personal and collective histories that brought us to this pass? Or does the body politic swim in white supremacy as fish do the ocean, unable or unwilling to see the substance that surrounds and embraces them?
The eyes-open medicine everyone should take is Raoul Peck’s series “Exterminate All The Brutes,” now available on HBO. Peck (who among many other works directed the amazing James Baldwin film I Am Not Your Negro) has created something quite unprecedented for U.S. television: a highly personal, deeply political, simultaneously thought-provoking and deeply moving tapestry of the creation of white supremacy and the history of its having grown fat on the blood of its victims.
Peck narrates the four-part series, which weaves home movies, archival footage, historic re-enactments, film clips, popular music, and symbolic portrayals of death and domination. If you are Jewish, Indigenous, Black, Asian…you will see the heaped-up bodies of your ancestors and it will be hard to watch and hard to look away, just as it may be for viewers who see their own ancestors in the lineage of conquerors, slave-traders, missionaries, soldiers, and robber barons who joined to annihilate those they despised and feared.
“No,” says Peck repeatedly, punctuating his account of systemic atrocity, “it is not knowledge we lack….The educated general public has always largely known what atrocities have been committed and are being committed in the name of progress, civilization, socialism, democracy and the market.” The history is known. What’s at fault is the collective refusal of those who inherited privilege from perpetrators to see that it is not a series of “isolated incidents,” not “survival of the fittest,” not millions of little stories, but a single sweeping narrative that in truth explains it all.
If you want to read more about the series before watching (it should show up in other streaming venues soon), here are a few reviews I recommend: on Vox; on RogerEbert.com; on Time.com; and in The New Yorker.
One review I emphatically don’t recommend was in the New York Times. I’m tempted to think it was a mistake to assign the series to a TV critic who seems so far inside the conventions of television that he mistakes originality and brilliance—which knocked me off my feet for four fully riveting hours watched over four evenings—for something that “would have had more force in a shorter film.”
What most offended and upset me in the review is something that the TV critic Mike Hale probably meant as an aside: “[Peck’s] repeated linking of the histories of the American West and African colonialism to the Holocaust (allowing for a lot of Hitler footage) might strike some as facile or insensitive.”
I have often thought of this sentence since seeing the series. One of the powerful points Peck makes is to include not only the crimes of colonialism and its apologists but also those of the Nazis and others whose passion for scapegoating and skill at extermination targeted people who had previously been integrated into their societies, who had previously been granted many of the rights and privileges reserved for those deemed sufficiently white.
In what way is connecting the genocide of slavery, the genocide of Indigenous people, and the genocide of Jews “facile or insensitive?” Yes, there are some people who feel there is honor or value in claiming that what was done to their ancestors is uniquely terrible, uniquely deserving of a place at the head of a hierarchy of crimes against humanity. But those people are wrong. Their mistake has the awful consequence of turning what should be the recognition of a massive and enduring pattern of extermination in the name of white supremacy—one that must be addressed precisely by acknowledging its common roots and branches and therefore common solutions—into a competition. Hale missed the point the entire series exists to make.
Can this change? Please watch “Exterminate All The Brutes” and consider. Recognizing that “it is not knowledge we lack,” your answer and mine matter more than almost anything.
“Lord, I Am Running (99 ½ Won’t Do)” by Rev. Sekou.