Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Democratic Resistance in Baltimore

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

On The Nightly Show of April 28, Larry Wilmore opened with the following deadly serious jokes, setting the perfect tone for an analysis of events in Baltimore: “Violent thugs run amok in the streets of Baltimore. But enough about the police department…Officials and police officers call for nonviolence. A nation of black people replies: you first. It’s time to channel your outrage.”

Wilmore’s commentary on the news coverage of Baltimore’s uprising began with a clip from ABC’s Good Morning America. Baltimore youth could be seen from overhead throwing rocks at heavily-armed police as George Stephanopoulos reported (now paraphrasing) that the Maryland governor had declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard after violence erupted overnight. The footage was no doubt meant not only to show (especially white) viewers the violence Stephanopoulos referenced, but to rationalize the reactions of state and city officials and induce a widespread sense of fear as police are seen retreating under the onslaught of advancing youths.

Later on Wilmore pointed out the long connection between oppression and riot in American political history, starting in the founding period with perhaps the country’s most revered act of violent resistance: the Boston Tea Party. Though he didn’t address the GMA clip, the video of a militarized police force collapsing in the face of civic resistance was thrilling to behold. It reversed the passivity that the state takes for granted and relies on among its citizens, which is crucial to the police acting as if it has carte blanche to treat citizens, especially those of color, any way it pleases. When police and citizens encounter and engage one another on America’s streets, even when it’s in a political context, the state and its police arrogate to themselves an institutionally superior position and subordinate citizens to second-class standing. Protest politics always effectively proceeds with the permission of the state and under its armed surveillance. This norm is democratically perverse and must be challenged.

When, for example, minorities oppressed along lines of race, class, or gender take to the streets, aroused and indignant regarding questions of fundamental justice and basic governance, the police should stay in or return to their barracks. The operating assumption in American politics is that the police must be able to control the people assembled whenever it is deemed socially or politically necessary by public officials. These officials may invoke law and order or keeping or restoring the peace, but hegemonic political interests and the distribution of power are always involved. Rather, the assumption must be that police can only successfully fulfill their mandate with the active cooperation of all of the people, especially minorities. If they do not have it, if, say, they run into massive democratic resistance on the part of dispossessed minorities who refuse to accept state-sponsored violence, they should exercise the better part of discretion and bow to the people’s will. There are occasions when they need to surrender the streets, not offer a show of force and escalate the violence by turning it against citizens. After all, the streets do not belong to the police.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was accused of inciting violence when she remarked that as the police protected protestors so they could demonstrate they also gave room to people who wish to destroy things. She was not saying that the police allowed or encouraged violence; she was saying that in doing one (protecting protestors) you may also do the other (enable “thugs”). Yet it could be argued that she should have said exactly what she did not say, namely, that citizens (not thugs) who take to the streets to enact their democratic political rights to counter racial violence and oppression ought to be left alone. If things turn ugly, then that will be addressed in the aftermath. That would be a democratic way of doing things. It may be an expensive way, but unlike national security, how can a price be placed on democracy? How can we not pay whatever it costs? Nonviolent protest, its noble tradition and historical results notwithstanding, often comes at an intolerably high price, even when it succeeds, to certain minority constituencies in democracy. What’s more, contrary to what many would like to profess, democratic violence can and does produce democratic results, starting with the founding of this country. (A resort to arms in the name of rights can also produce undemocratic results, of course. Witness the case of Cliven Bundy who, in faux republican spirit, effectively deployed weapons to fend off the Bureau of Land Management. The government retreated. It did not escalate the conflict and employ its overwhelming firepower—and he’s nothing more than a wealthy racist welfare cheat. But America did not lose its collective mind over Bundy, who, not coincidentally, is white and remains armed.)

The inspiring scene of young Baltimore citizens overwhelming police runs counter to the still shots that provided background as Wilmore mocked official calls for nonviolence. One of these photos showed Eric Garner in the process of being murdered in a police chokehold and another showed police officer Michael Slager standing over the soon-to-be corpse of Walter Scott, whom the officer had just shot (at) eight times.

Wilmore’s astute interpretations of violence in America contrasted sharply with the knee-jerk reactions of politicians and dominant media outlets. The president of the United States and the mayor of Baltimore denounced violence as inexcusable and unacceptable. Major talking heads did likewise and demanded that everyone join their chorus of condemnation. While not everyone meekly complied, few wanted to say a good word on behalf of a democratically inspired turn to violence.

Deray McKesson, a Baltimore community organizer, did his best (which was quite good) to counter the simple-minded moralizing of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the subject of violence, in part by exposing Blitzer’s vicious comparison of destruction of property to the execution of Freddie Gray and many other Baltimore citizens at the hands of police. In the end, however, the most McKesson would say about the practice of violence is, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.” But when is violence not only to be condoned but engaged by a democratic people? It’s not clear whether many Baltimore neighborhoods have been so decimated and abandoned by neoliberal capitalism and its compliant 
state apparatus that they more closely resemble Hobbes’s state of nature or open air prisons.

Violence by police, then, is not the only crime routinely committed against Baltimoreans. Neoliberalism, as Pope Francis remarked, kills. Residents of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods live close to fifteen years fewer than the national average and nearly twenty years fewer than residents in the wealthiest parts of the city. In many neighborhoods, they have life expectancies lower than people in Yemen, Syria, and North Korea. This is a violence that may be out of sight of white America, but it is not hidden or invisible. It endures not as the product of blindness but deliberate indifference and cruelty insofar as neoliberalism’s distribution of its spoils presumes that many will be sacrificed and wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer segments of society.

As a first step, what might counter the structural forms of violence waged against America’s inner cities? Upon Freddie Gray’s arrest and initial assault, Baltimore citizens recorded police officers dragging him to a police van. Remarkably Baltimore police made no effort to stop people from recording their brutalization of Gray (they felt immune). More remarkably, they were in no apparent hurry to finish what they were doing and had no fear that any citizen or citizens might intervene on Gray’s behalf. This presumption, no doubt shared by police across the United States, needs to be undone. Is this not what Huey Newton had in mind when the Black Panthers patrolled the streets of Oakland with their guns and law books? Is this (or something like it) what it will take to rein in America’s inherently rogue police forces? For example, does this democracy of ours want Baltimore citizens dominated, disenfranchised, and dispossessed because of race to exercise their newfound individual rights under the second amendment to the Constitution, courtesy of District of Columbia v. Heller, and bear arms to stop the killing? Martin Luther King remarked in 1968: “These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Must Baltimore’s downtrodden conclude that essential rights and freedoms have to be taken by force of arms by those systematically denied them in democracy?

How would a police force that knew it could not arbitrarily assault its forsaken citizens conduct itself in such a context? What if Baltimore cops knew that if they attempted to assault and murder a fellow citizen on city streets that they might have to worry not only about being recorded but also about immediate reprisal of some kind? Perhaps this would be a police force that would show citizens of all colors and classes due respect and prove capable of self-discipline and self-restraint—in part because it would need to be afraid of the very citizens they are sworn to protect should they abuse their power. Police must take violence directed at them by democratic citizens enraged at their oppression as a sign that they have failed and failed utterly in their mission. The larger order that arms and protects a militarized police and occupation force must also take it as a sign of abject failure. From the armed forces to local police, America’s democracy unduly invests in its military capabilities, sure signs of fear and weakness. Instead of investing in guns the country should try investing in its people, its infrastructure, its cities, and its nonmilitary institutions. The violence we need to redress with all our resources is to be found right here at home.


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