Blackness as Fighting Words
106 Virginia Law Review Online 124 (2020)
40 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2020 Last revised: 28 Jun 2021
Date Written: December 25, 2020
The resurgence of worldwide protests by activists of the Movement for Black Lives (BLM) has ushered a global reckoning with the meaning of this generation’s rallying cry – “Black Lives Matter.” As citizens emblazon their streets with this expression in massive artistic murals, the Trump administration has responded with the militarized policing of non-violent public demonstrations, revealing not merely a disregard for public safety, but far worse, a concerted dismantling of protestors’ First Amendment rights. Nevertheless, BLM protests have persisted. Accordingly, this Essay considers the implications of this generation’s acclamation of Black humanity amidst the social tensions exposed during the era of COVID-19. What does the Trump administration’s militarized response to BLM protests mean in a world mutilated by the scars of racial oppression, a wound laid bare by America’s racially biased, aggressive, and supervisory culture of policing?
In response, much in the way Cheryl Harris revealed Whiteness as Property, this Essay suggests and defends Black identity itself, or Blackness – whether articulated by the pure speech of racial justice activists who affirm Black humanity, or embodied by the symbolic speech of Black bodies assembled in collective dissent in the public square – as “fighting words” in the consciousness of America, a type of public speech unprotected by the Constitution. The very utterance of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” tends to incite imminent violence and unbridled rage from police in city streets across America. Discussions of “Black Lives Matter” by pundits conjure images of subversion, disorder, and looting, the racialized narratives of social unrest commonly portrayed by the media. Yet, the words “Black Lives Matter” and the peaceful assembly of Black protestors also encapsulate the fire of righteous indignation burning in the hearts of minoritized citizens. This dynamic reflects unresolved tensions in the First Amendment’s treatment of race relations in America. Even more, it exposes the role of policing in smothering the Constitutional rights of Black and Brown citizens.
This Essay provides three contributions to the ongoing discourse on policing in the United States. First, it reveals how unresolved racial tensions in the First Amendment – focusing specifically on ambiguities in the fighting words doctrine – perpetuate the racially biased, aggressive, and supervisory culture of American policing. Second, it analyzes how such unresolved racial tensions cast a dark shadow over the liberty of Black and Brown citizens who experience racism at the hands of police officers, yet avoid acts of protest for fear of bodily harm or arrest. Third, it illuminates the embeddedness of racism in American policing culture, more generally; a culture that not only constructs and reconstitutes the racial social order, but also degrades the dignity of Black and Brown citizens. Collectively, these insights lend support toward demands for police abolition from BLM activists. As this Essay concludes, until we as a nation wrestle with the unresolved racial subtext of modern policing – a racist culture woven into law that not only silences the legitimate protests of minoritized citizens in violation of their First Amendment rights, but also rationalizes callous violence at the hands of law enforcement – Black America will remain a peril to the veil of white supremacy that looms over the American constitutional order.
Keywords: First Amendment, fighting words, policing, police abolition, constitutional law, critical race theory
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