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This Is Not ‘The First Purge’, But Our Reality Damn Sure Looks A Lot Like It

The Purging of the most marginalized has been happening for a very long time, and it’s been sustained through white supremacist systems.

CW: genocide, Black death, state violence 

Here is the legal definition of genocide, according to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The 10 stages of genocide are:

1. Classification — creating and propagating an “us vs. them” narrative.

2. Symbolization — distinguishing “them” from “us” via symbols and titles, embracing symbols of hate against “them” and pride in “us.” 

3. Discrimination — denying rights and access to “them” through social and political means. 

4. Dehumanization — equating “them” with animals, regarding an entire people as effectively non-human, non-sentient, non-living as justification for the symbolization and discrimination stages, all of which will follow.

5. Organization — state-sponsored or sanctioned militias or forces, effectively authorized to kill and maim without consequence.

6. Polarization — further targeting members of the dehumanized group in order to drive “us” and “them” even further apart.

7. Preparation — the making of plans at the state level to solve the “problem.” 

8. Persecution — the dehumanized group members are (incrementally) isolated and caged. 

9. Extermination — intentionally bringing about or allowing the deaths of members of the dehumanized group. 

10. Denial — revision of the narrative and refusal to acknowledge it is genocide. 

If you know the truth about U.S. history, then you understand. Per this definition, the U.S. has been guilty of the crime of genocide for centuries. In a country that is invested in the genocide of Black people, crises and moments of heightened unrest and vulnerability become opportunities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic becomes an opportunity to dwindle our numbers through inaction—even beyond the everyday crime of denying us proper health care—doing nothing as Black folks die at the highest rates. Protests against a militarized police force and its rampant brutality become opportunities for further escalation and harm, for cops as well as civilian white nationalists, militia, and accelerationists. Uprisings become opportunities for white supremacists foaming at the mouth, ready to incite a race war or just kill Black folks for fun. 

In witnessing all of this—and knowing what I know about the insidiousness of capitalism, policing, political conspiracy, and how they are all wrapped up with white supremacy—I cannot stop thinking about The First Purge

As the fourth installment of the Purge horror franchise, it serves as a prequel, relaying the story of the inaugural Purge night—an annual event where all crime is legal for 12 hours. It follows a group of Black people and their fight to survive the night. 

The entire series serves as a political commentary on class warfare, political and law enforcement corruption, and white supremacy. This particular entry gives us a scene in which a Black man fiercely protecting his community literally strangles the life out of a white supremacist wearing Blackface, and it’s one of the most cathartic things I’ve ever seen in a horror film. 


The Purge is presented by the government, the New Founding Fathers, as a “social catharsis” for the people in the midst of ongoing protests against socio-economic disparities. Rather than address the systemic failings of capitalism and institutional racism, those in power institute a Purge. 

They frame this event as a gift, as something equally beneficial for all citizens. They’ve given the people an “outlet” for their anger at oppressive systems instead of addressing the systems as they should because those systems keep them rich and in power. 

And if people have a state-sanctioned outlet for their anger, and encouraged to direct it against each other, they are less likely to direct that anger where it should go, less likely to fight to demolish the structures that warrant their anger. The Purge is not just an attempt at racial containment, it’s a distraction. 

As with any major social event, there is privilege and power always at work in who is able to better protect themselves—just as we have seen with the pandemic crisis. This first Purge night is held as a “social experiment” on Staten Island. The wealthy citizens quickly evacuate the island, but many of the poor Black folks cannot afford to. 

Citizens are offered $5,000 from the government to stay on the island throughout the entire 12 hours. Anyone who volunteers to be monitored and tracked is promised further compensation dependent upon their level of participation. It’s a tactic to ensure that as many poor people as possible stay and participate, and the government offers this knowing their hope is that most of them will not survive the night. Poor folks take them up on this offer knowing their everyday survival is tied to money in a brutal capitalist society that thrives on their poverty. 

The volunteers are each given psychological evaluations before having their tracking devices implanted and given contact lenses to record everything they see and do. The evaluators ask each participant, “Are you angry?” and drive home the prevailing fiction that the Purge is an opportunity for them to release their anger. A psychologist hired to consult on the experiment explains on the news, “The benefit of acting violently without worry of consequence, that’s a freeing violence.”

The role of the media is to carefully orchestrate a specifically conjured the story, as per usual. They immediately spread footage of the first kill of the night and go on to broadcast ensuing violence for the rest of the night. It’s a way of making sure that the general public becomes more and more desensitized to watching Black people die on television on a loop. 


When the citizens initially do not respond to the experiment in the way that is needed in order to further their interests—throwing block parties and mostly committing harmless looting, vandalism, and pranks—white supremacist mercenaries are sent in by the government disguised as gangs to escalate the situation, specifically in low-income areas and housing projects. 

Their mandate is to inflict direct harm and they do so enthusiastically. Meanwhile, white nationalist militia and off-duty cops seize the opportunity to terrorize Black people even more. The very function of Purge is incremental genocide. It’s a culling.

But this is not the first Purge. The Purging of the most marginalized has been happening for a very long time, and it’s been sustained through white supremacist systems. This is being highlighted by recent events—with an uprising against state violence occurring in the midst of a pandemic impacting poor Black folks the hardest—and it seems that a lot of folks are finally starting to “get it.” 

Police are intentionally escalating protests and blaming Black people for destruction they caused, as is their mandate. They are assaulting, arresting, and pushing back the media to silence them, as it is their intent to enact their terrorism without watchful eyes. They are committing war crimes by assaulting medics and storming medical tents meant to serve the protestors to create even more unrest and prevent people from receiving medical care after they’ve been harmed by police. They are looting and destroying protestors’ water and supplies. They are giving direct orders to run over and shoot protestors. 

White supremacists are showing up to fan the flames of chaos and harm Black folks, as is their tradition. Mayors are instituting curfews with extremely short notice, ensuring that many Black people will be brutalized and arrested. Mayor Garcetti closed every COVID-19 testing center in LA as a punishment against Black residents—the most vulnerable to the virus—declaring, “We’re not going to stand for the burning of police cars.” This is a war crime. 

Black people—and Indigenous and other people of color—in this nation have always lived in the kind of apocalyptic dystopia that The First Purge and its accompanying chapters dramatize for horror fans. Politicians, police, intelligence organizations, and plain ass white folks on the street have always had “the benefit of acting violently without worry of consequence” for killing us or directly contributing to our deaths with apathy, inaction, or facilitation. 

They have always been able to embrace that “freeing violence” for themselves, but anger must never be directed at them, where it belongs. Not our anger or anyone else’s. Instead, we are encouraged to direct it at each other. They manipulate narratives and frame themselves as the heroes, as our saviors. “Protect and Serve” is offered up to obscure and deny the many ways they terrorize and systemically murder us. 

This is not The First Purge, but our reality damn sure looks a lot like it. And, right now, a lot of people are finally waking up to that fact. 

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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