The incoherence that pervades the American justice system repeatedly sanctions losses of black lives, activating indignation and pain with a long history
Black Youth as a Weapon
It breaks my heart to have to write this follow-up piece in light of the circumstances of the recent grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the August 9th murder of Michael Brown. It appears that the dictum “Police Brutality Must be Defended”, the title of my August piece, holds true. This title refers to Michel Foucault’s ironically titled 1975 lecture series “Society Must be Defended,” and here, it is police brutality that comes to stand for “society” – as respectability and culture – which must, apparently, at all costs be defended. At least, this is what “justice” as it is presently being served in the US would have us know. The clichéd performance of a refusal to hold police accountable for the killings of black youth in particular, reiterates a monstrous and seemingly implausible knowledge of the phrase “police brutality must be defended”. The announcement earlier this week of no indictment by a Staten Island grand jury in the chokehold-death of Eric Garner is yet another case in point.
Following this “no justice” type of knowing, police are not held accountable for these murders according to at least two narratives: First, police officers are scared for their lives in the face of black bodies, perceived as lethal weapons in and of themselves, whether the individuals are armed or unarmed; therefore, their killing of black people is justified by their fear. This fear is a racist distortion and, as others have noted, is ultimately a white supremacist perception of a threatened order and power structure. An alternative narrative exculpating police of the loss of black lives is that the killing was unintended – an accident, and therefore not punishable as murder. An accident of what, exactly? Of fatally pulling a trigger upon perceiving danger where there was merely a 12-year-old playing with a BB-gun? Or where a seven-year-old lay sleeping? Or where a young mother and child were present inside their home?
Matter and the “Evidence” of Historical Affect
Listening to the press conference given by Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, after the decision by the grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown was released on Monday night, I was struck by McCulloch’s insistence on the justice system’s reliance on concrete evidence. In his preamble, McCulloch referred repeatedly to an alleged mutability of witness statements – where certain facts were inconsistently reported, or changed from story to story. This, he implied, effectively invalidated the prosecutor’s case. Yet, such mutability could be drawn out in any number of questioning techniques in secret proceedings. Also, if indeed the witness accounts were mutable, one might consider that the air in this country is so thick with current and past stories of racist murders that it is haunted, especially in the south – it is thus entirely possible that these stories are clamouring for attention in the collective consciousness and certain facts can become fungible under pressure. In reading subsequent analyses of Wilson’s defence, I was surprised to understand that his defence rested on fear. A feeling. Now is this concrete evidence, or is it a hard fact? A racist feeling with deep historical roots is a hard fact. It is a harder fact when it results in murder. A racist feeling is an especially hard fact when it results in murder that goes unnamed and unpunished.
In the face of this grand jury decision, “#blacklivesmatter” has become a ubiquitous meme and chant in protest gatherings and marches. This enunciation is both affirming and painful – spoken over and over because the system says otherwise. “Black lives matter” is a speech act that is expressed by the amassment of bodies in the streets in protest, mattering forth this concrete fact of embodied life as evidence. A more sinister side of concrete matter and incontrovertible evidence of black lives mattering has been the staged die-ins.
Love and the Language of Fighting Back
“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.” This James Baldwin quote is highlighted on a protest sign photographed in Washington DC last Tuesday, with “love” underlined three times in red.
Since last Monday, a resurgence of protests and marches have been held across the country and around the world in solidarity with the community in Ferguson, and also to target the larger problem of racist police brutality and killings in the U.S., with protested fatalities quoted to be occurring at a rate of every 28 hours. Other signs, carried by young children and adults alike, read “It is Right to Rebel,” “Darren Wilson Murdered Mike Brown,” “No Justice No Peace,” and “Black Power.” Some quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard.” Much has been made, again (as in August), of so-called looting and rioting in the community. These actions of protest are born of a desire for self-validation and the overhaul of a structurally racist justice system, and it behoves us to examine the racist slur and write-off that the words “looting” and “rioting” carry with them.
“It’s a kind of incoherency that you are constantly negotiating,” says Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, regarding the everyday racial aggression that the book documents. Rankine’s book of poetry, published on October 6th, has received praise and attention in its timely emergence, cataloguing and analysing daily moments of racism in its leading sections, and memorialising victims of racist violence in its final section, including one, “In Memory of Trayvon Martin”, which begins:
My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget that we are named. What is that memory?
The days of our childhood together were steep steps into a collapsing mind. It looked like we rescued ourselves, were rescued. Then there are these days, each day of our adult lives. They will never forget our way through, these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—
Your hearts are broken. This is not a secret though there are secrets. And as yet I do not understand how my own sorrow has turned into my brothers’ hearts. The hearts of my brothers are broken. If I knew another way to be, I would call up a brother, I would hear myself saying, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—
On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. […]
The power of the broken heart lives in the space of the break that is dense with energy, of a desire to heal the irreconcilable parts. The knowledge of this pain is the beginning of the difference between “no justice” and “know justice”. Protest and social action happening around the country and the world right now come from this energy, venturing into the break and coming together as its expression. It is this love that may sometimes erupt in violent expression.
Related Images: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2014/11/violent-protests-in-ferguson-missouri/100860/
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