Tijdschrift voor filosofie
sinds 1969


Futile even when it's not: Alika was a Black Male and murdered because of it

Thomas Baruzzi

Alika Ogochukwu. A Black man from Nigeria forced to make a living begging on the streets of Civitanova Marche, Italy. Forced, in the early afternoon of July 29, 2022, to give up that living, and his life, on those very same streets. A passerby’s recording shows him pressed down by a white man’s bare hands after being beaten to the ground with his own walking crutch. A dog barks. Cars drive by. Someone exclaims for the aggressor to stop, but in an almost annoyed manner, ‘ohh e basta’, as if the aggressor were a (white) boy going a bit too far in the expression of his condoned (white) aggression.

The short-lived media coverage of this event, so tragic yet so orderly in its execution, has focused on one of two things: the civic indifference of the bystanders, or the sensationalist display of Alika’s now-widowed wife and her emotional breakdowns. The furthest critique of the matter has posed the commonplace question of whether racism was the culprit, answered with a matter-of-factly ‘no’. It was, we are consoled, just a senseless killing. These have all distracted from Alika’s life, whose agency (or lack thereof) is projected away from him onto the crowd while his suffering is swapped for that of his wife. Her pain, not his, is what white society considers more relatable. He becomes thus a dehumanized absence, and we lose the implications, so full of sense indeed, of his dead corpse robbed of its existence in the enactment of a white man’s – and perhaps nation’s – revenge. Amidst the dearth of theory available for understanding what happened and why, the field of Black Male Studies provides us with substance we can finally work with.

Tommy J. Curry, the leading Black professor and award-winning author who coined Black Male Studies and holds a Personal Chair in it, summarizes the field’s aim with utmost clarity in a lecture published on December 15, 2021 in the Harvard Review of Philosophy. He points to the abundance of empirical studies consistently showing that racialized, subordinate-group males are the primary targets of lethal, exterminatory and exclusionary forms of violence, including considerable rates of sexual violence in white patriarchal societies across history. Using this data, Black Male Studies seeks to make serious incisions into our present academic and popular discourses surrounding race and gender. One such incision is Curry’s theory of racism as primarily a form of misandrist aggression that trickles down to affect the entirety of the negatively racialized group. He develops this theory, firstly, by treating Black males as the subjects of analysis, instead of the objects of prevailing fears and fantasies. These often depict them only as dead bodies, or the embodiment of physical rage and sexual appetite. So far, these racist and misandrist caricatures have been reiterated without end in our structures and disciplines no matter how ‘progressive’ or ‘new-wave’ we claim to become. Black feminism too is implicated in this mix, which Curry elaborates on in another 2021 paper, ‘Decolonizing the Intersection’. Therein, he shows how initial formulations of intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw were derived from 20th century criminological and sociological views which reduced Black men to aspiring patriarchs who naturally resort to rape in order to compensate for their deficient masculinity. Central, then, in understanding Curry’s theory is his concept of Phallicism. This term refers to the condition by which racialized, subordinate-group males are simultaneously perceived as both sexually threatening and sexually desirous by the dominant racial group, stimulating their homicidal libido.

Alika’s murder, I claim, is one such example of phallicism at play. It was no simple overreaction, not a killing ‘for futile motives’, nor a hate crime as could befall anybody of the Black race generally. Alika was not just Black, nor was he just a male. Alika was a Black male, and he was killed precisely to suppress his Black maleness.

Reviewing the events of that day illustrates this. Alika approached his aggressor, who was walking with his girlfriend. According to the aggressor’s own account, Alika was insistent, and ‘he even held my girlfriend by the arm.’ Other sources say Alika might have given her a compliment, calling her ‘Bella’. Bella/bello (beauty, f/m), these expressions are not unlike the ones used by street peddlers in Italy. Either way, what these possibilities have in common is their reference to the female companion of Alika’s aggressor. According to police reports, the woman then exited the scene (somehow) and Alika, who was limping, was ‘chased down’. Within 4 minutes, he was dead.

Can this motive – the protection of a white woman – be considered so ‘futile’ in the mind and actions of Alika’s aggressor, as well as the wider structures that allowed him to be killed midday on the busiest street of the city? Recall the emphasis: ‘He even held my girlfriend by the arm.’ That this claim was not corroborated by surveillance footage is even more telling. Alika’s aggressor clearly felt, likely instinctually, that he could get away with this particular alibi. The same can be said of Valentina Boscaro, a white woman who stabbed her boyfriend just two months after Alika’s murder, blaming ‘a hooded Black man’ in her testimony. Both excuses are based on demonizations of the Black male, in the first case as a sexual threat and in the second as a physical one. Regarding Alika, moreover, this perception of him as a sexual threat arose together with the opposite caricature of him as sexually desirous, both for his aggressor’s girlfriend and for the aggressor himself, who imagined Alika as a rival to either match or outdo. Or, rather, to undo. This is homoerotically reflected in the way we see him forcefully straddle Alika, dominating him both physically and sexually. It is this combination of hatred and desire in white men and women which phallicism seeks to account for as both the cause and justification for white society’s murderous treatment of Black males.

Varying the parameters supports my appeal to phallicism even further. Neither racism nor sexism alone are exhaustive explanations, since neither a Black female’s outstretched hand nor that of a disabled white male would have been considered just as sexually threatening. And even if we concede that Alika’s killer would have still reacted aggressively in the above two alternative scenarios, especially in the latter, would it have resulted in killing? And to kill in such a cold-blooded manner? Even if one blames psychiatric problems, as his lawyers have done, Alika’s aggressor did not go around killing just anybody. Until that day, he had a clean record, say the police; then, suddenly, without hesitation, ‘an abnormal reaction’.

All throughout, pedestrians watched, filmed or exclaimed, themselves embroiled in phallicism. Of course, it is easy to say of oneself that you would have intervened, when killers lurking on the sidewalks exist only in hypotheticals. Furthermore, any intervention would not have changed the very real intention to kill. Unless, of course, the onlookers were themselves implicated in this intention, participating in Alika’s expedited death through a self-sustained loop. That is, one in which every blow reinforced their indifference – such as when the only other person visible in the video, an elderly man, turns his back – while their indifference, in turn, encouraged the next blow. In this sense, the crowd can be said to have caricatured Alika neither as a somebody nor even as a nobody, but as a nothingness, with nothing there to even attempt saving in the first place. Or, perhaps, he was perceived as just a body destined for death anyway and deserving of it too.

Was, then, the treatment of Alika really abnormal, or was it normalized? Did the witnesses really know any better? Indeed, on a societal level, not just the one of individual pathologies or prejudices, there is a drive in Italy’s core, as elsewhere in the West, to protect the pure fullness of the white women against the impure vacuity of the Black male. A cursory survey of Italy’s history shows evidence of this. From Dante Alighieri’s equating of his real-life, white female muse with divine love and providence or the country’s colonial past, to its more recent far-right immigration policies and political depictions of the Black male as ‘rapist, even when he is not’, to paraphrase the title of a 2018 book chapter by Curry. It is this implicit agreement that allowed Alika’s killer to feel like he could and should do what he did, that made everybody around him let him, and that made us at home watch on repeat, sharing in the spectacle. It is the same agreement that made us forget about Alika just as quickly as he was killed, and deny, despite the facts, that Black males are victims of anything more than generic racism, otherwise seen as privileged by their maleness, especially if cishetero. But that agreement ends here. You can no longer discount it as futile: the murder of Alika was racial and, importantly, sexed.

He was a Black male and murdered because of it.