Friday, January 23, 2015

Sea of Blue

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

Rafael Ramos’s December 27 funeral in Queens drew an estimated twenty to thirty thousand police officers—not only from the United States but also from abroad. Commissioner William J. Bratton referred to it as a sea of blue, and print and broadcast media across America followed suit. The image was no doubt meant to be awe-inspiring to the public at large, calming and reassuring to Ramos’s family. The image also signaled something else: a police show of force, an excessive, narcissistic show of force. Mourning rituals have a politics all their own. The police gathered in huge numbers to display solidarity—for Ramos and his family, for each other, for the very idea of police. They gathered to let the world know that the police own New York City and that they are different, that blue lives matter most because what they do is different from what anybody else does. That’s why Ramos was not just murdered but assassinated. He was assassinated because he was blue. This, according to Bratton, makes him a hero.
Bratton’s eulogy not only paid tribute to Ramos, then, it was also an exercise in institutional self-assertion. Bratton does not conceive of the police as a subordinate element of society, as an instrument of democracy that executes necessary assignments related to the coordination and cooperation of society, while the mainsprings of democratic life unfold elsewhere. He thinks of the police as the “foundation” of society. The police are “the blue thread” that holds things together in the face of anarchical forces that might otherwise tear them apart. The police are the condition of possibility of everything. That’s why there were twenty to thirty thousand cops in Queens. They wanted the rest of us, mere civilians, to know their place in the order of things.

Bratton, not surprisingly, holds politics in contempt. Early on in his eulogy, he told a short story about his first police funeral. It took place in Boston in 1970. Patrolman Walter Schroeder had been killed responding to a bank robbery. Bratton reminded his audience that America suffered from a great deal of tumult in 1970. He cited civil rights protests, anti-war activism, and anti-government and anti-police demonstrations. He cited “divisive politics” and a “polarized …city…and country.” “Maybe that sounds familiar,” Bratton remarked, as if to suggest that the conduct of democratic politics, especially an oppositional politics, leads invariably to violence. Bratton didn’t come right out and say it, of course, but he didn’t need to say it. He let his list of happenings cited do the work for him. Schroeder was “ambushed by a violent group of anti-war extremists.” Besides, he’d been more explicit a few days earlier—and received criticism for it. At the funeral he needed to be more circumspect. But make no mistake: politics killed Rafael Ramos and those who were—and remain—on the streets protesting the police are responsible. While Bratton ostensibly laments that people in America can’t see each other, he’s one of the reasons. His fear and loathing of democratic politics (and the citizens who enact it) as something illicit, something dangerous, something to be monitored, contained, cordoned off, administered, and sanitized contributes to the blindness.

Politics by the police themselves fall into a different category. At Ramos’s funeral, a sizeable number of attendees turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio when he spoke. It was a blatant display of contempt for the democratic figure who is also their boss. Civilian control of those who wear government uniforms and carry guns is a fundamental principle of democracy. It applies not just to the military but also to the police, who apparently like to think that they don’t have to answer to anyone. Ironically, in the aftermath of this protest, when its propriety was questioned, the grievance surfaced that police suffer from a lack of respect. This may or may not be true, but it misses a larger and more important point. What the police don’t seem to appreciate is that while they are a significant aspect of a democratic society, they are not an inherently valuable part of that society. They are a necessary evil, to borrow a well-known American expression about government. In other words, if we could do without the police we would gladly dispense with them. This is not true of other major institutions in American life, however, including one that police traditionally disparage: colleges and universities. Colleges and universities embody and enact (many of) the fundamental values of a democratic society. They are an end in and of themselves. The contributions they make are priceless and irreplaceable and we cannot—and would not want to—do without them.
What’s more, the police often present themselves as antagonistic to and destructive of the basic norms of democracy. This includes New York’s finest, who in recent years have racked up credit for herding, surveilling, and assaulting democratic citizens exercising their rights at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and attacking, dispersing, and destroying Occupy Wall Street encampments in 2011 (the latter formed part of a national campaign). In addition, they routinely erupt at even the slightest criticism, to say nothing of serious critique. Think of the venom top police officials unleashed at Bruce Springsteen in the wake of “American Skin (41 Shots).” If the police feel disrespected, perhaps that’s what they have earned, given how they represent and do the dirty work of society’s powerful interests or how they (mis)treat American citizens of color.
Last summer, Eric Garner was murdered by New York City police on Staten Island. He was black. These facts are connected. No charges were filed against those responsible, including the principal assailant, Daniel Pantaleo. In America, we have learned it’s nearly impossible to indict police for murdering American citizens, even when they do it repeatedly. In the last few years New York police have had several opportunities to prove to a skeptical public that they are not an institution with an intrinsically problematic relationship to democracy, that they take seriously the claim that their job is to serve and protect, that they understand that the foundation of America’s democracy is freedom—and thus politics. They could have refused to move against their fellow citizens in Zuccotti Park. Instead, they might have engaged in democratic civil disobedience to defend the rights of the people themselves, supposedly the ultimate objects of their concern. They might also have attended Eric Garner’s funeral. Where was the sea of blue for Mr. Garner? His execution represents a criminal failure of policing—not just in New York City but America (which holds true for Michael Brown and so many others). Why were the police not there en masse to take responsibility for their failure and to mourn his loss, because he, too, was one of their own?

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Social Equality and the Afterlife of White Supremacy

Melvin L. Rogers
Associate Professor, Departments of Political Science and African American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

“A society once expressly organized around white supremacist principles does not cease to be a white supremacist society simply by formally rejecting those principles.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw

The United States has witnessed an eruption of youth-led protests and demonstrations to police brutality against Black Americans. A simple formulation expresses their commitment: “Black Lives Matter.” But how precisely should we understand this utterance? What does it mean to convey? And what, if anything, does it tell us about the country in which it is uttered?

At a basic level, the formulation means precisely what it says, Black lives matter as much as all other lives. And yet the need to say these words tells us something important. The United States is structured so as to make clear that Black lives do not matter in the same way that other lives do. These three simple words highlight a fundamental distinction at the core of American life: the lives of Black Americans are devalued in relation to their white counterparts. White supremacy continues to distort America’s professed commitment to social equality. The racially fueled contexts in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others have been killed throws into sharp relief, yet again, the way in which the past continues to haunt the present. We are not merely dealing with police officers that can kill with impunity, but with law enforcement agencies whose practices are framed by habits that treat whites as worthy of being served and protected, while Blacks are exempt from that same treatment.

I must immediately beg forgiveness.  I hear the critics say: “White supremacy, you say, but surely this is a misdescription?  Slavery has long since ended. Laws and statutes banished Jim Crow. Rights have been formally extended. We now have Black Americans in prominent positions of authority and power. The language of white supremacy appears to be inappropriate. The United States has changed.”

The problem with the criticism above is that it treats those practices—slavery, Jim Crow, and formal exclusion—as equal to white supremacy. With slavery ended, Jim Crow abolished, and rights extended, we can safely say white supremacy is no longer. But this confuses the matter. It treats specific instances of white supremacy as tantamount to its meaning.

And yet we have seen, since the founding of this country, that white supremacy refuses to be confined to any specific practice. It mutates, adapts, and evolves to frustrate efforts to see Black Americans as equals, finding a new life after the death of each of its recognizable forms. Consider the history. In the wake of Black Americans’ participation in the American Revolution, this nation witnessed a slow denial of their standing and contribution to the polity. As Alexander Keyssar documents in his magisterial book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Northern states such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania slowly began to rescind rights previously extended to Blacks, effectively joining their Southern counterparts in constructing a subclass of persons. Although the Civil War amendments sought to recognize the equal status of Blacks, that recognition was effectively denied by the ascendancy of debt peonage, economic exploitation, lynching, and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement killed Jim Crow, but the policing and subordination of Blacks was reconstituted through the rise of the carceral state [PDF], the underdeveloped welfare state, and unfunded public education system

To be sure, throughout each of these periods we have witnessed a positive, even if uneven, rearrangement of our political institutions, but those advances have been contained and constrained by a persistent and stable social inequality in which care and concern for Black Americans has been insufficiently extended. In paying exclusive attention to political equality as an indicator of racial advancements, we have ignored the social differential status of Blacks and the way in which that differential status highlights the afterlife of white supremacy. The recent police shootings of unarmed Black men that go unpunished are merely the visible display of a culture in which Back life is devalued and overexposed to violence. 

Although social equality is related to political equality, they are distinct. The latter is related to constitutional and legal rights and procedures that structure the basic institutions of society. Political equality thus gives all equal access to participate in the affairs of the state by granting specific rights, such as, the right to vote, contest elections, and speak out against the government. Political equality is essentially a defense against the abuses of others. Each historical extension of rights to Black Americans resulted because they were defenseless against their white counterparts. In this context, political equality assumes that there are persons from whom Black Americans need to be protected. Notice it leaves in place the danger; it takes that danger as a settled fact of being Black in America.

Despite their significance, political rights pale in comparison to the deeper acknowledgement that social equality represents— the sense that one is deserving of respect and concern. Respect is a way of paying proper attention to someone and is fundamentally relational. It acknowledges that one is worthy of recognition. Concern expresses one’s own anxieties about something, as in, “the appearance of the roof on the house concerns me.” But it also denotes something of significance for which one is responsible, as in, “homelessness is the concern of the city.”  

Herein lies the important difference between political equality and social equality. Whereas political equality protects us from being harmed by others, social equality is always about paying attention to, feeling for, and directing care toward persons. This is precisely what the “Black Lives Matter” mantra seeks to capture. And yet it is the extension of social equality that white supremacy prevents precisely because its logic refuses to equalize the fundamental worth of Black and white life. As we have seen in the recent death of Michael Brown, to take one example, the consequence of this differential worth can be fatal.  White supremacy has remained steady throughout all of the presumed advances, it explains not only the differential functioning of law enforcement in the United States, but the inequalities in education, health care, and economic opportunities that place Black Americans beyond the reach of respect and concern.

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