Minorities, State Violence, and the Price of Self-Respect


Fredrick Douglass recalls in his autobiography the time he fought back against slaveholder, Edward Covey. For six months, Douglass was the target of Covey's cruel mental and physical mistreatment. One day, Douglass decided to defend himself. The fight between Douglass and Covey would last for two hours. Describing the aftermath, Douglass writes:

"I was a changed being after this fight. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence... I was no longer a servile coward... but my long cowed spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence."

Living in a cruel world is not only physically and mentally debilitating, but it can lead its victims toward existential homicide. A person can--after time and time again of being mistreated--believe the lie that they are less than human, not worthy of respect, a nothing. They can answer with clear proficiency the question Dubois articulated in "Souls", "What does it mean to be a problem?" because they see themselves as others (the oppressor) sees them. James Baldwin notes that "the persuasion that a life is worth less than others and that the oppressed can only live on the terms dictated by others is worse than a crime; it is...sin."

But what happens when the saving power of self-respect wipes out the deep red stain that this social sin once made on your psyche? What happens when you not only refuse to believe the lie that you are worthless but you assert your self-respect in the face of an oppressor? For, Douglass it "roused [him] to an attitude of manly independence" but I wonder what it was like for Covey? Douglass explains that Covey never touched him again. But how did Covey now view this once servile coward now courageous black man? Did he respect him? Did he fear him? Did he now see him as a human being? Or did he continue to view him as just a black slave?

The answer to these questions we will never know but one thing we do know is that Covey never touched Douglass in anger again nor did he report Douglass' transgression to his permanent slave master. Douglass was able to get away with asserting his self-respect and the benefits were well worth the risk.

The Price Some Pay

For philosopher, Robin S. Dillon, self-respect can be described as:

"... an appreciative mode of being toward and with oneself and the world with regard to one's worth." It consists of emotion, expectation, value, action, reaction, and interaction.

Dillon coins the term "basel self-respect" as "an implicit confidence, an abiding faith in the rightness of my being, the unexpressed and unquestioned (indeed, unquestionable) assumption that it is good that I am."

But not every act of asserting one's self-respect, particularly for black, brown, queer, and Trans' bodies, has the same outcome as Douglass' interaction. At times it can be deadly; as in the case of Emmitt Till who refused to beg for mercy from his white racist murderers. At other times it can be life altering; as in the case of thousands of Americans who are harassed, beaten, and unfairly arrested by the police on a daily basis.

On May 20th, 2014, Arizona State campus police stopped a black female professor for jaywalking. When she did now show her I.D. quick enough for the officer, a viral video released last month shows the police officer placing her under arrest, using what appears as excessive force, while also leaving her dress exposed at times during the altercation.

Throughout the video, Professor Ersula Ore is shocked by what is taking place as she asks, "Do you have to speak to me in such a disrespectful manner?"

This question is both bold but also revealing of her self-perception. Her self-respect was not crushed against the car as she demanded respect from the officer nor did she compromise it in exchange for blind obedience. She had an abiding confidence in the rightness of her being. Although afraid, she knew that what she was owed was basic human respect not suspicion, impatience, or aggressiveness.

What was actually a question posed by a citizen, was interpreted by the police as "resisting arrest." But if demanding rationally in the midst of chaos or asking to be treated as a citizen by inviting dialogue is a crime, than the law is correct, it is resistance alright; resistance to demeaning, cruel, and biased treatment.

After Professor Ore is handcuffed and picked up off the ground, she is seen giving a kick to the Officer. She was charged with assaulting a police officer as a result, among other charges. Ore claims this was self-defense. Some may argue that self-defense takes place during an assault and never afterwards, but this is to be mistaken by what Ore was defending. She was not merely defending her body after being handled excessively; she was also defending her self-respect. The kick, which looks so small to not even have caused a bruise, seem to have meant, "you have treated me badly, but black, woman or otherwise, I am not to be treated in this manner!"

Like Douglass, Ore defended herself in more ways the one. Unlike Douglass, that defense in the form of questioning authority and kicking an officer may have come at a price. She faces several felony and misdemeanor charges, that if convicted can ruin her career.

Professor Ore received a PhD in English, Rhetoric and Composition from Penn State University, an accomplishment that took several years to achieve. Sadly, what happened on a quick walk from her classroom to her car has now put her academic career in jeopardy. This is more of a testament to the destructive nature of our carceral system than to a citizen's refusal to show her I.D. immediately to a police officer upon request.

More importantly it shows the public that having self-respect and demanding it comes at a price---a price that so many oppressed people have had to pay for with their lives. Respect should not have to cost so much. Unfortunately in America, it still does.

What Should We Do?

How can we show not only our own self-respect but also a respect for others? Do we get angry and organize or do we allow the short attention span of viral activism to keep us silent and stagnated? Professor Ore has gotten support from the academic community as well as from others but there are other victims of questionable police behavior whose names we do not know and some we do. Some are professionals while others are homeless citizens. Some survived, others have entered an early grave. Some were able to outwardly assert their self-respect, while for others, their self-respect and self-confidence has been crushed by an institution that says they are here to protect and serve but have proven that this is mere illusion and idealism.

Just last week a viral video was released of a cop punching a black woman over ten times in the face as she lay on the ground. The stop was apparently a case of jaywalking on an LA freeway. In New York City, a black man was assaulted by police and arrested for nodding off on the subway after coming from work.

When phrases like "I am Sean Bell" is articulated, it is said in hopes that people will realize that we are all vulnerable to ill treatment by the state and one should have a right to assert their self-respect by not having to run or alter one's path on their way home. Or by not having to beg for mercy or blindly and silently be obedient to those in authority who out rightly show you through their worse behavior, that they "never loved us."

Violence is not the most effective way to respond to injustice, but self-respecting individuals taking a stand together against injustice is. This is a price we all can afford. The question is do we respect each other enough to believe that others and ourselves are worth it?