NOTE: This article contains spoilers for Captain America: Sam Wilson #18
When the decision was made to hand over the shield and title of Captain America to Sam Wilson, the former Falcon, Marvel was well aware of the objections in store. Some would claim it was wrong to take the title away from Steve Rogers on creative grounds, others on tradition or the marketing stunt motivations. But for a section of the public, no matter how ugly it may be to accept, the idea of seeing Captain America: Sam Wilson would be an objectionable one for purely racial reasons. Despite the fact that Sam acted as Cap’s sidekick and friend for years, and would be as fitting a replacement in his stead as Robin would be to Batman, some would see him only as an African-American – and as such, the move could only be motivated by ‘political correctness.’
Writer Nick Spencer hasn’t shied away from those prejudices, or all-too-uncomfortable-accurate reactions in his run on the series, carried off with the level of honesty readers would hope. The Sam Wilson series has reached a new level, slowly raising the issues of police brutality, racial profiling, stop and frisk, and the street-level sentiments that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and others like it.
And when a superhero finds himself on the side of the victims, it’s time for Sam Wilson to face the same question Steve did back in his Civil War days: is ‘Captain America’s duty to the American State… or the American people?
Rage is Arrested
Older readers may remember the superhero Rage – the result of teenage Elvin Haliday’s dunking in radioactive waste – as the super-strong, super-tough member of the New Warriors, and The Avengers before that. But in the new Captain America, Rage has emerged as a defender of the everyday American of color – a community being targeted by a new, privatized police force dubbed the Americops. They’re aggressive, faceless, militarized, and showing a clear preference for arresting visible minorities and lower-class citizens. In other words, it’s Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuña’s stand-in for the contemporary specter of overzealous police officers – without tarring any actual police forces with such a brush – and, better yet, funded by a clearly cruel billionaire.
Back in Issue #11, Rage let his anger get the better of him when witnessing some Americops getting violent with a group of innocent men, and welcomed a fistfight. The battle soon made headlines, and Sam Wilson took it upon himself to end it, knowing just how explosive and political the skirmish could be (for obvious reasons, to anyone watching the same kinds of incidents in America today). Rage may take to the help with… well, rage, but by the time Issue #17 rolled around, Sam was forced to accept that maybe young Elvin wasn’t a lost cause at all.
Unfortunately for the growing hero, that same issue ended with him stumbling onto a pawn shop robbery before the superhuman thieves fled the scene – leaving Rage to take a beating from the Americops responding to the alarm.
Cap Meets The Cops
After seeing the condition in which Rage was brought into custody, and the passionate crowds that began to surround the police station demanding he be released, Sam once again intervenes to avoid catastrophe (noting that this kind of racially-charged standoff is the exact kind able to tear communities apart). As Sam enters the station to bail out his sort-of-sidekick, he can’t help but remember when Steve Rogers did the same for him so many years earlier, when the lines between White and Black America were… well, more openly defined. He was the first African-American superhero, after all.
As Sam muses that progress is a bit slower than he had hoped it would be, he’s given his first sign that this situation won’t be easily solved when the older desk sergeant doesn’t just ignore the fact that he’s Captain America, but begins to state that Sam Wilson isn’t “his Captain America” until Sam preemptively calls him out. Another younger, Black officer shows up to escort him to see Rage in his cell… where the situation goes from bad to worse, as far as Sam is concerned.
Rage in a Cage
Rage gives Sam a summary of the events that led to his arrest, but claims that the Americops attacked him before he could explain himself, and didn’t let up until he was as severely injured as he now stands. Having openly attacked them just weeks earlier, it appears they didn’t want to miss the opportunity to settle the score, especially after the missing superhuman thief knocked him halfway unconscious before fleeing. Sam somberly accepts Rage’s account, and comforts him the way Steve would have in the past: for starters, getting someone like Peter Parker to bail him out, and an attorney like Daredevil or She-Hulk to defend him. But Rage has a different idea.
Having grown into adulthood on the streets of New York sticking up for his fellow man, and protecting his community from this new Americop threat, Rage sees himself as just the latest Black male to be abused and locked up on suspicion and profiling, as opposed to actual evidence or wrongdoing. And if the Americops are going to see him as any other, then he’ll see it through. He’ll go through the proceedings that any African-American male would, knowing that the American public will be watching due to his celebrity – and get a close-up look at how, in Rage’s opinion, the criminal justice system works differently for people like him.
Sam told him to find a better way to make a difference to those he cared about, and for Rage, this is it. Fortunately for him, Captain America has gotten a bit proactive with his surveillance equipment.
Cap Finds The Evidence – and a Dilemma
By linking up psychically to New York’s birds (really, it’s kind of Falcon’s thing), Sam is able to find footage of the pawn shop the night Rage was arrested. The video confirms his story, but it also includes something much worse. Specifically, footage of Rage being knocked unconscious by the Americops, and then continuously beaten. While his allies instantly state the the evidence should be made public, Sam hesitates, knowing just how incendiary footage of an African-American superhero being beaten by Americops could be. Incendiary in the sense that protests would only be the beginning – a stance that the Mayor’s Office (unsurprisingly) shares, wishing the video to be held back.
Sam Wilson seeks the best possible person for advice, but Steve Rogers doesn’t do much to help: Sam knows what he has to do, and Steve knows his fear of the consequences is what’s giving him pause. It has to be pointed out that Steve also makes a point of praising Sam for doing more in the role of Captain America than he ever did. Where Steve used the identity as a symbol, a heroic ideal that rose above everyday issues, Sam has worn it in his pursuit of justice for America’s disenfranchised, or vulnerable. He hasn’t been afraid to ruffle feathers of the establishment while doing it, either.
And in the end, Sam knows what Steve knows: there’s only one choice to make.
And with a few strokes on his keyboard, Captain America turns the footage over to the public, fully aware of the pain, anger, sadness, and well-funded opposition it will cause across the country. As the footage airs on televisions throughout news rooms, churches, diners, and in the homes of African-Americans, Sam explains his reasoning:
“Steve’s advice is just what I needed. I know what has to be done here… I just had to find the strength to make it happen. Let the chips fall where they may. Suffer whatever consequences may come. People need to see what’s happening here. They need to see what they’re doing to us. It may hurt to watch… It may make us angry… But let the world see the truth.”
And with that, Sam Wilson decides that black lives matter and the brutality being practiced on them by Americops must be shown to the world. Knowing the consequences doesn’t change the need to pursue the truth – a fact Steve knew his former sidekick would accept – and Sam apparently believes that showing the reality to the rest of America can change things for the better. But he also knows that whatever happens next – be it a costly indictment of the Americops, or angry protests that give way to violence – rests on his shoulders.
Captain America: Sam Wilson #18 is available now.