Bring the Pain: Common Sense and Black Resistance


‘Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.’– Thomas Paine, Common Sense 1776

In 1776 an anonymous pamphlet was published entitled Common Sense. This collection of prose, by Thomas Paine (born Thomas Pain), provided a compelling argument for the independence of the thirteen colonies from the tyranny of Great Britain. Paine critiqued the British monarchy, aristocrats, and the practice of hereditary succession. Common Sense is credited as having influenced the common masses to embrace the idea of independence. So influential was Common Sense, History.com wrote, “Common Sense” played a remarkable role in transforming a colonial squabble into the American Revolution.” An examination of Paine’s critiques of British colonial rule, reveals interesting parallels with Black Americans grievances against the current American political structure.

Paine argued that the injustices, perpetrated against the American colonies, were magnified by the fact the colonies, through taxation, were essentially funding their own oppression. He wrote, “Our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.” Coincidently, for Black Americans this too is the case.

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Slavery was not only a physical condition, it was an economic system. The ability for American landowners and others to extract free labor for centuries, is what built the wealth of this nation and funded American imperialism throughout the world. Shawn Rochester, author of The Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America, explains “slavery by definition is a 100% tax on your labor…Some researchers have estimated that the value of the labor extracted from enslaved Africans was up to $24 trillion and others up to $97 trillion. Taking an average of these estimates yields a conservative valuation of up to $50 trillion, which is the effective size of the tax imposed on Black people between 1619 and 1860.” Enslaved Africans couldn’t vote, appeal to government, nor did they have any elected representatives. This was taxation without representation. For the American colonist James Otis Jr., “taxation without representation” was tyranny. Enslaved Africans, through their labor, funded the tyranny from which they suffered.

The effects of over-policing, cash bail, and mass incarceration also examples how Black Americans continue to fund their own oppression. Over-policing means Black people are more likely to be stopped by the police. These stops result in Black Americans being subject to more tickets/fines, searches, and arrests. Black people are only 13% of the U.S. population but, account for 28% of all arrests. According to Justice Policy, once jailed, “African Americans were less likely to be released on their own recognizance than white defendants and received significantly higher bail amounts than all other types of defendants.” Money from tickets, fines, court costs, and cash bail go on to fund portions of city and state governments including police departments.

The mass incarceration of black people only adds to the money-grab. Families of prisoners, essentially, fund prisons. Money that families send, to an incarcerated loved one, is “taxed”. According to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, published by Time Magazine, bankers streamline “the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.”

“Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us.”- Thomas Paine, Common Sense 1776

On March 3, 1991 a black motorist by the name of Rodney King was stopped by LAPD. The result of this stop, thrust police brutality upon the American imagination. Officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano were filmed viciously beating King with batons. A total number of thirty-three strikes and kicks, left King with broken bones and bruises throughout his body. A little over a year later, the police officers went on trial for the beating. They were acquitted.

On February 4, 1999 an unarmed black man, Amadou Diallo, was shot 19 times by police officers Edward McMellon, Sean Carroll, Kenneth Boss, and Richard Murphy. The officers “mistook” Diallo’s rectangular wallet for a gun. The officers fired a total of 41 shots. On February 25, 2000, after a jury trial, the officers were acquitted.

On November 25, 2006, the morning before his wedding, an unarmed man, Sean Bell, and two of his friends were fired upon with 50 rounds from plainclothes police officers. Bell died from the injuries he sustained. The police officers, Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora, and Michael Oliver, were charged with manslaughter. On April 25, 2008 they too were acquitted.

And the list goes on: Alton Sterling killed, officers acquitted. Freddie Gray killed, officers acquitted. Eric Garner killed, officer not indicted. Michael Brown killed, officer not indicted.

The refrain that is often used to excuse these atrocious acts is, “it’s not all cops”. However, the evidence is clear that the problem is systemic. For example, a 2015 study entitled A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-level in the United States, 2011–2014, by Cody T. Ross, University of California-Davis, found:

“evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average. Furthermore, the results of multi-level modeling show that there exists significant heterogeneity across counties in the extent of racial bias in police shootings, with some counties showing relative risk ratios of 20 to 1 or more. Finally, analysis of police shooting data as a function of county-level predictors suggests that racial bias in police shootings is most likely to emerge in police departments in larger metropolitan counties with low median incomes and a sizable portion of black residents, especially when there is high financial inequality in that county. There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates” (Ross, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0141854).

Paine argues that it is a common sense understanding, that those who subdue a group of people are unfit to protect that group of people. The presence of systemic racism in American policing has created an environment in which Black Americans must forgo common sense, and rely on an institution that victimizes them in many ways. To add to this, police departments are often weaponized, against black people, by countless “Bar-b-que Beckies”, “Poolside Patties” and “Central Park Karens” in ways which drastically highlight the subconscious reality of whom the police are really designed to protect.

“It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world”– Thomas Paine, Common Sense 1776

For Paine and the American colonists, revolution became an option when the British monarchy taxed the colonies without representation and sought to subdue them. Paine is considered an American hero. His words inspired the revolution. Coincidently, the American Revolution was not a series of peaceful protests. It was not the result of voting. It was not the result of a letter writing campaign. The American Revolution was violence. It was riots. It was war. It was “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”

The conditions of Black Americans can be likened to that of the American colonists. The government of the United States amounts to tyranny when black people can be killed by state sanctioned violence in the form of police shootings. It is the result of tyranny that black Americans have little to no wealth in the richest nation on earth. It is the result of tyranny that Black Americans have poor health outcomes, high unemployment, low home ownership rates, lack of access to quality education, and are disproportionately incarcerated.

The current state of civil unrest must be viewed in the context of a tyrannical American government. When a group of people are being oppressed, American history has shown, that violence, riots, and revolution are predictable outcomes. The protesters that may be involved in burning, looting, and destruction of property, are being as patriotic as Paine and the American colonists. Their names should be mentioned in the same spirit as Patrick Henry, John Adams, and George Washington because their actions are not just cathartic but catalytic. When a riot forms to resist tyranny and oppression, it is not violence. It is resistance. It is revolutionary. Paine would be proud.

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