The Fire This Time: Black Youth and the Spectacle of Post-Racial Violence
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
“Let’s hope it isn’t too late to listen, listen intently, carefully, minds open, hearts full. Let’s hope.” – James Baldwin
In 1963, James Baldwin published an essay entitled “The Negro Child – His Self-Image,” in The Saturday Review. Later celebrated as “A Talk to Teachers,” his prescient opening paragraph unfolds with the following observation:
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced … from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.”
Signaling the existential crisis engendered by a profound political crisis, the first title resonates more powerfully with the current historical moment, especially as Black youth are increasingly assaulted, even killed, by White police officers in alarming numbers. Baldwin’s essay also points to both the need for resistance and the hazardous price one might have to pay by engaging in open defiance. Baldwin was right then and his words are more powerful today as we are truly living in “dangerous times.”
The killing of young Black men such as 16-year-old Kimani Gray, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Michael Brown, 22-year-old John Crawford III and 25-year-old Freddie Gray, among others, are part of a historical pattern of racial terror in which Black populations have been contained and controlled by so-called legitimate mechanisms of state violence. Not only is a Black person killed by the police “every three or four days,” but “the rate of police killings of Black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century.”
Vicious forms of militarized repression have always been visible to Black communities.
Rather than seen as victims, Black youth are vilified, and viewed as suspicious, delinquent or dangerous by mass media. They are the most recent populations once again regarded as the “wretched of the earth,” considered excess and treated as human refuse, and preyed upon by the criminal legal system, private probationary companies and the financial elite who have brought back the debtors’ prison. While violence waged against Black people in the United States is nothing new, we have witnessed the appearance of new death-dealing military weapons and the militarizing of entire police forces. In addition, there is the more recent neoliberal economic destruction of entire cities, and the collapse of the welfare state, the war on terror and the rise of the punishing state, all of which add a new and more capacious register to a long history of such racist violence.
At the same time, the racist brutality and spectacle of violence that have become more visible in the United States are abetted and legitimated through a discourse of demonization, stereotypes and objectification. For instance, Fox News commentators blamed the Baltimore uprisings on gangs, schools and the welfare system, and in some cases called for the use of deadly force against those participating in the uprising. John Nolte, a conservative news pundit, stated that in his home of rural North Carolina, “the residents don’t riot. We shoot rioters.” Frank Rich observed, “The right has so far blamed the crisis on unions, welfare, single-parent families, Democrats, the ‘animalism’ of Baltimore residents and President Obama.” Such comments reveal more than the racist sensibilities that fuel them; they also make clear the intellectual and symbolic violence aimed at poor Black youth and the communities in which they live, and their devastating consequences. Dangerous indeed!
Vicious forms of militarized repression have always been visible to Black communities. More recently, assaults have occurred almost weekly as another Black person is killed for walking through the wrong neighborhood, playing music too loud, taking umbrage at police harassment or for simply holding an unloaded air rifle in a Walmart store. The killings play in the mainstream media as a spectacle, which by definition offers little or no critical commentary about the long legacy of racist violence in the United States. Nor does the mainstream media examine the myriad of conditions that both produce and normalize such violence. After decades of political inaction and retrenchment abetted by a compliant media, the United States has dissolved into a racist, militarized and corrupt financial state. Isabel Wilkerson goes so far as to argue that the killing of Black men has surpassed the spectacle of lynching associated with the country’s segregated past. She writes:
Lynchings were spectacles with hundreds if not thousands of witnesses and were often photographed extensively. Now, much of the recent police violence has been recorded as well. The chokehold killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, the beating of great-grandmother Marlene Pinnock on a Los Angeles freeway and the gut-wrenching case of 17-year-old Victor Steen, tasered while riding his bicycle and then run over by the police officer in Pensacola, Florida, were all caught on videotape and have reached hundreds of thousands of watchers on YouTube – a form of public witness to brutality beyond anything possible in the age of lynching.
Indeed, such images play nightly in the mainstream media. The death of Eric Garner, and countless others, serve less as a mode of public witnessing than as fodder for right-wing and conservative pundits to condemn an alleged Black culture of criminality and for the networks to increase their ratings. We know what such images mean for many Black youth, who view the police as responsible, in part, for their precarious existence; they refuse to be titillated by these spectacles of violence. Inoculated against the perception of the police as public servants whose job is to protect and serve their communities, young people, especially poor people of color, experience the police as a dangerous and violent paramilitarized force, an arm of state terrorism.
Young people have watched as their peers have been accosted by the police, harassed, beaten and too often killed. As entire cities are transformed into zones of lawlessness, the police appear not only more violent, but more brazen, routinely violating the law rather than upholding it – their own video cameras be damned. They also inflict abuse and violence with impunity because lawlessness is on their side, safely secured by the absence of effective civilian oversight systems. Hence, it should not be surprising that many Black and Brown youth both fear for their lives and view their neighborhoods as occupied territory. But it has been surprising nonetheless, especially for those who bought into the postracial mythology of the Obama era.
When journalist Amy Goodman asked Aniya, a 13-year-old Black girl in Staten Island, why she was marching to protest the death of Eric Garner, she replied: “I want to live until I’m 18 … You want to get older. You want to experience life. You don’t want to die in a matter of seconds because of cops.” Democracy for this 13-year-old has not only receded but its civil institutions have also become toxic for those marginalized by class and race. Manufacturing threats of fear and violence fails to create what Tariq Ali has called “sleepwalking citizens,” among these populations. Rather, the undiminished presence of violence and suffering has produced new modes of politics for young people of color. The older myths that upheld a more liberal form of colorblind multiculturalism are no longer operable against the massive contradictions that have come to characterize a more fully realized corporate statehood and form of market fundamentalism.
Citizenship is now reduced to consumerism and politics is emptied of any wider sense of community.
The so-called American dream has been emptied of its mythical status, relegated to a form of nostalgia fit only for the “Mad Men” fans and right-wing pundits who inhabit that imaginary calling for a return to a time when women knew their “place,” privileged White people and corporations ruled society with an iron grip, and Black people were largely restricted to hidden enclaves of poverty or contained and disciplined by local police forces. Replacing this world – reflected in the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, the soothing conformity produced in Reader’s Digest and the 1950s television series, “Leave It to Beaver,” with its suffocating, White, middle-class notion of the heterosexual family – is a dystopian social order in which “violence … operates not on the periphery of society but at its center as an organizing idea and serves as a primary form of mediation in addressing major social problems.”
The new folk heroes of US mass-mediated fantasy are Gordon Gekko, the quintessential conscienceless corporate shark portrayed in the film Wall Street; Patrick Bateman, the more disturbing character in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel and the 2000 film American Psycho, who literally kills those considered disposable in a society in which only the strong survive; and the resurrected John Galt, the character from the infamous Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged, who transforms the pursuit of self-interest and a culture of cruelty into a secular religion. Unfortunately, in this case, fiction has become reality, as such characters are all too readily personified in the real-life figures of the Koch brothers, Lloyd Blankfein, Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer and Jamie Dimon, among others.
As the traditional social welfare state is transformed into the corporate state, those democratic public spheres that support public goods are under attack. As the social contract and the democratic values and ideals that uphold it are replaced by a regime of neoliberalism that celebrates privatization, commodification and self-interest, inequality in wealth and power grows exponentially, destroying the healthy social structures necessary for a democracy and the requisites for embracing citizenship as a matter of political, ethical and social responsibility. Citizenship is now reduced to consumerism and politics is emptied of any wider sense of community and respect for the common good.
A ruthless form of state control, a culture of fear, pedagogies of repression, an expanding incarceration panopticon and an all-embracing surveillance state now define the politics of governance. No longer restricted to military battlefields or the world of “underground” crime, state and corporate violence are now the default solutions for a society that views social problems as a threat to state security. At the same time, the misery and suffering caused by a failed state are viewed as forms of criminalized behavior, relegated to the repressive disciplinary practices of the criminal legal system. One consequence is a hardening of the culture that gives credence to state repression and its most visible form of domestic brutality, unchecked police violence, which targets the most vulnerable populations, particularly poor Black people.
Since the 1980s, the war on poverty has been transformed into a war on the poor.
Police violence is the most obvious form of state terrorism and has been fueled by the transformation of local police units into SWAT teams that adopt what the American Civil Liberties Union has called “warrior-like mind sets.” Since the early 1990s, an entrenched militarism and “culture of war” has seeped into civil society as the US Department of Defense, under a program known as 1033, provided “tens of thousands of pieces of military equipment to local police departments for free.” Weapons no longer used on foreign battlefields found their way into police precincts across the United States and included “machine guns, magazines, night vision equipment, aircraft and armored vehicles.” Overall, it has been estimated that the Defense Department program has provided more than $4.3 billion in free military supplies to local police.
Military-grade weapons do more than provoke fear and hostility in Black communities; they also produce among the police modes of repressive behavior shaped by the notion that war, not trust, is the modality for dealing with those populations considered dangerous and disposable. Military aggression in this case becomes the organizing principle that not only informs police strategies in dealing with poor and Black and Brown communities; it also becomes a generalized rule of governance, reinforcing a culture of violence and lawlessness. In the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attack on 9/11, state militarization was intensified by a culture of fear and surveillance presented to the US public as the war on terror. The culture of war joined with a ruthless form of market fundamentalism put in place a new authoritarianism that was now complete.
Pervasive police abuse and violence have become the foci of a number of emerging social movements, from Black Lives Matter to a growing number of rap groups and young Black militants. And rightly so. As more and more unarmed Black adults and youth are shot by White police officers, the cries for an indictment of perpetrators and broad-based reform have been superseded by a more general cry for justice. Lawlessness functions both to abuse the innocent and protect the guilty. And too many local police departments have bought into this dreadful logic, indulging with impunity the notion that war and policing have merged. Andrew Kolin argues that as the police become more aggressive, they begin to “look increasingly like a civilian branch of the military.” One indication of the emerging police state is not only evident in the transition of the police into a civilian branch of the military, but also in the transformation of the police into paramilitarized SWAT teams, which are used disproportionately against people of color. The report “War Comes Home” states that “50% of the people impacted by SWAT deployments from 2011 to 2012 are black or Latino [whereas] Whites account for 20%.” Inexplicably, although SWAT teams are used overwhelmingly to investigate incidents in which people are “suspected of committing nonviolent consensual crimes,” too many encounters prove deadly.
Consider the following, deeply revealing and tragic incidents: “Tarika Wilson, a 26-year-old mother who was shot and killed holding her 14-month-old son and Eurie Stamp, a 68-year-old grandfather … shot while watching baseball in his pajamas during a SWAT invasion. [In addition,] Bounkham Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old baby, was in a medically induced coma after paramilitary squads unwittingly threw a flash grenade into his crib, piercing a hole in his cheek, chest and scarring his body with third-degree burns. None of the victims were suspects.” As a result of their warrior mentality and their increasing willingness to use aggressive, belligerent methods, Radley Balko points out that SWAT teams function largely to produce rather than prevent violence. He writes:
… because these raids often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they’re actually creating violence and confrontation where there was none before…. In short, we have police departments that are increasingly using violent, confrontational tactics to break into private homes for increasingly low-level crimes, and they seem to believe that the public has no right to know the specifics of when, how and why those tactics are being used.
The registers of state violence now appear even to seep into every compassionate institution in US society. The tentacles of the police state extend from criminalizing those who seek social services to students who, as John Whitehead points out, are routinely “being photographed, fingerprinted, scanned, X-rayed, sniffed and snooped on. Between metal detectors at the entrances, drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways and surveillance cameras in the classrooms and elsewhere, many of America’s schools look more like prisons than learning facilities.” Mosques are regarded as terrorist organizations. The institutions of higher education are stripped of democratic values and turned into training centers for the financial elite. Young peaceful protesters are beaten and arrested for holding power accountable. Ruthless politicians exhibiting a loathing for government-managed social welfare programs slash $8.6 billion for food stamp recipients, half of whom are children, insisting that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” even for low-income children. Former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, exhibiting one vicious register of the neoliberal culture of cruelty, argues that low-income and poor school kids should be required to “sweep the floor of the cafeteria.” In this instance, the pain of others, particularly those considered disposable, becomes the subject of scorn and ridicule rather than compassion.
On a national level, the most visible and visceral expressions of the expanding surveillance-security state include the erosion of civil liberties, the crackdown on dissent, the war on whistleblowers, the legal illegalities of drone warfare, the unapologetic existence of a White House kill list and a war on terror, all of which reveal an abandonment of any respect for democratic values. Any revitalization of democracy fades as governance and politics begin to take on the disturbing characteristics of a broken society marked by the making of a war culture in which rampant violence and unchecked levels of human suffering become common currency. As the state descends into what Axel Honneth has called an “abyss of failed sociality,” it produces a mode of governance legitimated through a state of emergency that unleashes a politics of lawlessness as well as unchecked state and corporate violence. But none of these reveals the anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies fueling these initiatives more than the 40-year-old racist experiment of mass imprisonment.
While the killing of unarmed Black people may represent this violence in one of its most lethal forms, this killing is part of a larger structure of violence aimed at destroying the promise of a democracy in the “postracial” era, which includes a mass incarceration system in which even young children are now arrested for minor infractions. The stories are legion. In one such revealing and symptomatic incident a 5-year-old Stockton, California, “student was handcuffed with zip ties on his hands and feet, forced to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and was charged with battery on a police officer.” An equally disturbing event took place in a Baltimore City Detention Center in which juveniles awaiting trial for adult crimes were illegally kept in solitary confinement – one youngster was confined under such conditions for 143 days. Not only is this practice, performed on young people no less, reminiscent of the torture methods used by the United States on prisoners at Guantánamo, it also “violates article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 16 of the Convention Against Torture.”
The war on Black youth, in particular, has culminated in a simple, morally repugnant statistic: By “age 23, almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime.” As Michelle Alexander indicates, the racist nature of such violence is clear given that “there are more African American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
Moreover, the use of the police state to crush democratic aspirations is increasingly expanding not only to include the ongoing jailing of immigrants and their families and the use of violence against youthful protesters, but also to incorporate expanding populations of the poor by the arduous demands of debt and survival. Since the 1980s, the war on poverty has been transformed into a war on the poor. Increased impoverishment is the net result of policies aimed at harassing poor people of color such as racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, practices that mandate “drug testing for eligibility to receive welfare assistance” and jailing the underprivileged because they cannot provide bail.
The criminalization of poverty has become clear, especially in the US Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court. According to Karen Dolan, the report includes practices that result in the arrest of the poor, especially people of color, for such minor offenses as “a broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park,” all of which can result not only in excessive fines imposed by the courts and outside debt collectors, but also in jail time.
The Justice Department report revealed that many Black people, young and old, were targeted, arrested, incarcerated and sometimes killed not because they had committed a crime, but due to racial and economic profiling. According to numerous accounts, municipalities all over the United States were imposing exorbitant fees and court costs for transgressions as minor as “putting one’s feet up on a subway seat,” expired parking meters, walking in the street, and in some cases jail time when someone was unable to pay court fines and probation fees for misdemeanor offenses such as a speeding ticket. In short, criminalizing poverty, especially in communities of color, has gone hand-in-hand with the return of the debtors’ prison. All of these incidents add up to a shakedown scheme used to fund local police departments and municipalities. The Ferguson example is perhaps the most shocking since “the city of Ferguson collected $2.6 million in such fines and fees in 2013, most of them for traffic violations and other low-level offenses. This collection of fines and fees was Ferguson’s second-largest source of income.” David Graeber argues that the institutionalized racism uncovered by the Justice Department report was the criminalization of an entire city:
More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could.
What these revelations amount to is that Ferguson ran an “offender funded criminal justice service … effectively turning this city into an occupied territory, with a 95 percent white police force supporting itself by forcibly preying on a nearly 70 percent black population.” Subject to pervasive low-level but high-cost harassment, Black people “experienced 85 percent of all traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 88 percent of incidents in which an officer used force, and 93 percent of all arrests. They received almost all of the citations for petty crimes like jaywalking. Black drivers were twice as likely to have their cars searched as whites, yet significantly less likely to actually have drugs or other contraband. Of the people who spent two or more days in the city jail, 95 percent were black.”
In Ferguson, predatory finance practices merged with police violence and an utterly corrupt and unjust criminal legal system to produce a deadly brew of police brutality in conjunction with the ongoing criminalization of the minor transgressions that defined the fabric of everyday life for most Black people. Drawing from the Justice Department report, Marian Wright Edelman mentions one particular case in Ferguson that would seem incomprehensible in meaningful democratic society. She writes:
In one case a woman who parked her car illegally in 2007 and couldn’t pay the initial $151 fee has since been arrested twice, spent six days in jail, paid $550 to a city court, and as of 2014 still owed the city $541 in fines, all as a result of the unpaid parking ticket…. And Ferguson isn’t alone. The criminalization of poverty is a growing trend in states and localities across the country.
Crucial to recognize is that the criminalization of poverty is a national trend and not an unusual practice that only took place in Ferguson. As Karen Dolan observes, such practices are pervasive throughout the United States. When the profit motive becomes a reason to arrest people, not only do such practices lead to massive inequities in the legal system, disproportionally targeting poor people of color, but also they enact a substantive transformation of the police and the criminal legal system from “a public safety organization to a for-profit corporation that has the legal backing of the government and the ability to coerce the public with the threat of force…. [Moreover because poor people, immigrants and Black people] are targeted disproportionately by the police and are the least able to defend themselves in court, these vulnerable groups are fleeced for their money and often forced into virtual debt servitude.” As David Graeber states, another consequence of such targeted abuses is that:
citizens who had never been found guilty – indeed, never even been accused – of an actual crime were rounded up, jailed, threatened with “indefinite” incarceration in fetid cells, risking disease and serious injury, until their destitute families could assemble hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and penalties to pay their jailers. As a result of such practices, over three quarters of the population had warrants out for the arrest at any given time.
There is a certain unmistakable irony here in that as neoliberal policies strip all public services of their resources, the very repressive institutions that it relies on to maintain control of the 99% themselves adopt criminal behavior simply to be able to function. That criminality is then projected onto victims of such privatizing schemes, mimicking all the while the central values and corruption of the failed neoliberal mode of governance. This is clearly a prescription for the authoritarian state, which serves as a grim reminder of how the police and the criminal legal system more generally function to engage in massive shakedowns not only designed to raise revenue to support their repressive institutions, but also to implant fear in the most vulnerable by crippling their sense of individual and collective agency and decimating any sense of organization and challenge.
Hundreds of miles from Ferguson, the Baltimore community in which Freddie Gray grew up is typical of abandoned poor neighborhoods throughout the United States. These economically depressed and deprived communities suffer from the violence of willful neglect, the willingness of the neoliberal state to proliferate zones of social abandonment and terminal exclusion marked by deep poverty, few job opportunities, hopelessness, drug use, a culture constrained by the relentless struggle to survive and a suppressed rage that often turns inward, dissipating any notion of collective resistance and struggle.
West Baltimore represents, along with hundreds of neighborhoods just like it, not only zones of desperation and social abandonment; it is a stark reminder of how the most vulnerable – children and young adults – are saddled with a life scarred by police brutality, corrupt corporate practices and a criminal legal system that produces crime rather than protects its citizens. This is the face of domestic terrorism, one that far exceeds the violence enacted by police brutality, as shocking as that is in an allegedly postracial era. Freddie Gray had his spine severed and voice box crushed for making eye contact with a cop. This case is not exceptional.
Poor youth in the United States live in the belly of a predatory system.
In Los Angeles County alone, between 2007 and 2013, the police killed “41 people each year.” In one particularly gruesome act of police brutality, Aiyana Jones, a 7-year-old Black child from Detroit “was shot to death during a raid on her home.” How is it possible for a police officer to shoot a 7-year-old, regardless of the circumstances? It gets worse. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black child, was shot dead in a Cleveland park within seconds of the police arriving. His crime was that he was playing with a toy BB gun. Tamir Rice was killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann, who was deemed psychologically “unfit for service” by his previous employer, Deputy Chief Polak of the Independence, Ohio, Police Department. He was eventually hired by the Cleveland Police Department.
Such unhinged brutality points to a degree of lawlessness fed by a mixture of racism and administrative incompetency that could only exist in a society in which police violence has become normalized. Too typically, the mainstream media begins with the question of whether the shooting of children such as Jones and Rice is justified, bypassing altogether essential questions: Does the real threat in poor Black communities come primarily from the police? Given the generally minor or nonexistent offenses residents are charged with, why are the police in these communities in the first place, and who is responsible for sending them? These questions become all the more critical in a city such as Baltimore where CBS News reported on May 12, 2015, that the City paid out more than $5.7 million between 2011 and 2014 in more than 100 police abuse lawsuits.
Even worse, between June 2012 and April 2015, 700 detainees were turned away from central booking in Baltimore because they suffered from a variety of injuries, including fractures, head wounds and severe swelling, suggesting that police violence and abuse is rampant throughout the city. And Baltimore is only one of the cities in which the police have clearly broken the law. Police violence in this instance only becomes understandable within the larger context of a failed state in which low-income Black and Brown youth are considered excess, disposable and a threat to be either contained or killed.
Under such circumstances, the enemy abroad becomes indistinguishable from the “dangerous classes” at home. Recent killings offer up flashpoints that are increasingly more visible and incendiary, fueling modes of resistance that are focused rightfully on the most brutal and visible elements of state terrorism and violence. Yet, as important as such growing resistance to the emerging police state and state terrorism might be, it is crucial that the emerging protest movements embrace and address the broader context of state violence, a problem that plagued a number of protest movements in the last few decades.
Borrowing a phrase from law professor Constance Backhouse, a number of protest movements in the past seized upon issues that “enshrine the defining moments of their time,” but undercut a discourse of reform by refusing to engage the more radical call for structural change. This was especially true for certain liberal elements in the environmental movement, feminist movement and in the call for university reforms. Fortunately, there are a number of current anti-racist youth movements that refuse to be limited to short-term reforms and are mobilizing young people and others in a concerted effort to make structural reforms central to their demands. For instance, Alicia Garza, cofounder of #BlackLivesMatter and special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance makes this clear in a recent interview. She says:
First, I’ll say that changing Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter is not an act of solidarity. What it is, is a demonstration of how we don’t actually understand structural racism in this country. When we say All Lives Matter, that’s a given. Of course, we’re all human beings – we all bleed red – but the fact of the matter is some human lives are valued more than others, and that’s a problem. The other thing that we’ve seen is replacing Black with other things. I saw Animal Lives Matter one time and I just threw up a little bit in my mouth, actually. In this country, we commodify things, and we commodify movements. We see people like Ford doing commercials that say the American Revolution, right? What I think is important here is that we’ve been pushing people to really talk about what does structural racism look like in this country. It’s not about people being mean to each other.
Under the auspices of a militarized neoliberal agenda with its assault on the welfare state, public goods and a range of populations now considered disposable, the call to simply reform police behavior does not address the fundamental issue of brute force as the default mechanism for addressing all manners of civil unrest. Ta-Nehisi Coates insists “the idea of police reform – [is] a symptom of something larger. The idea that all social problems can, and should, be resolved by sheer power is not limited to the police. In Atlanta, a problem that began with the poor state of public schools has now [ended] by feeding more people into the maw of the carceral state.” Whether at the federal, state or municipal level, legitimate authority has given way to the force of power and the machinery of repression in dealing with social problems. All of the major public services in the United States share a common element in that they operate through active practices championed for their efficiency, cost effectiveness and standardization that punish rather than serve people.
The examples have become legion: Corporations lay off millions to fill the coffers of their exorbitantly overpaid CEOs; the Veterans Administration refuses to provide needed care to wounded and mentally unstable soldiers; millions of dollars are cut from federal and state programs that largely serve poor children; young people cannot find jobs consistent with their talents because the government refuses to fund a decent jobs program through a modern-day Marshall Plan; mega-corporations either pay no taxes or have them reduced while the nation’s infrastructure is underfunded despite putting American lives at risk; prison construction bypasses the cost of investing in higher education, and so it goes. As the channels of exclusion and expulsion proliferate, the conditions of misery, poverty, homelessness and despair deepen with no end in sight.
To reiterate a central argument of this paper, reforming police policies and practices, however, meaningful and well-intentioned, will not bring about justice if larger structural conditions continue to go unchanged or worsen. Under a racist, militarized neoliberal state, the police embrace violence as central to their mission because the only interests they now protect are those of the corporate and financial elite. Moreover, when political and civil society are transformed under a militarized corporate state not only does the definition of what constitutes state terrorism and violence expand, but so too do the conditions, if not the meaning of politics itself, have to be addressed if such violence is to be challenged in a meaningful and emancipatory way.
Resistance in the name of liberal reform is not enough.
Yet, mass violence, only partially understood in all of its ramifications, has provoked young people throughout the United States to “break the silence” in the spirit of sustained and peaceful resistance once employed by Martin Luther King Jr. The reality of the terrorist state has been exposed through the increasing levels of repression and assaults waged against young people. Not only have young people recognized that orthodox liberal reforms are anemic and ineffective, but they are increasingly making demands that challenge such reforms, such as the $15 an hour minimum wage, which though limited, have opened up a space to address deeper structural conditions and the necessity for new political formations outside of the established political parties. This is not to suggest that calls for community control of the police, independent prosecutors, curbing inequality, regulating corporations, creating stronger unions and a progressive tax system are not useful.
All of these reforms, including the call to end mass unemployment and the failed war on drugs, should be addressed. But they should be viewed only as necessary short-term corrections in the service of struggling for those deeper structural and political changes that would reject the existing form of neoliberal capitalism and the political, social, economic and ideological structures through which it is reproduced. What is needed is not liberal reform but the transformation of a political and economic system that is not merely broken but has developed into a bold authoritarianism.
Providing one argument, Peter Bloom argues that focusing on isolated incidents such as police violence often functions to prevent “radical challenges to the existing order.” Condemning state and corporate violence is not enough and can serve to reproduce a larger ideology of containment. Although some commentators responding to the wave of police violence against Black youth and the subsequent Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings have attempted to put such violence in a larger context, they have not gone far enough. Bloom is exceptional in this regard, offering an astute meta-analysis. He writes:
But mere contextualizations of the riots are not enough. They simply keep the discussion fixated in a place of reaction rather than transformation. It is imperative that arising from this unrest is a more forward thinking politics that actively acknowledges the unacceptability of present conditions and continuously demands that they be radically changed. By focusing on the deeper factors underpinning this violence, both from police and protesters, new possibilities for solidarity can emerge: allowing law enforcement and citizens to recognize that they are victims, though to different degrees, of the same unfair economic policies that under develop communities while asking police to “preserve the peace”…. The current reactive approach only produces a reactionary politics of containment.
Poor youth in the United States live in the belly of a predatory system that has been depriving them of economic and cultural resources while criminalizing their behavior for quite some time. These youth are the objects of a low-intensity war waged by a rapidly consolidating authoritarian state. Rather than being nurtured, even respected, by the commanding institutions they come in contact with every day, they are humiliated, harassed and often brutalized and imprisoned. Elijah Anderson underscores the structural contradictions and the psychic consequences on youth and recapitulates Baldwin’s themes 50 years later.
As children, they see police officers walk the hallways of their schools like in a prison. When black boys are involved in an altercation or disruption, instead of being sent to the principal’s office, they are too often handcuffed on the spot and given a criminal record. Experience teaches [them] that police officers exist not to protect them, but to criminalize and humiliate them. Few black boys get through adolescence without a story of police harassment, and with age, their stories proliferate. Aggressive police tactics turn black males into subjects of suspicion and skeptical scrutiny. This makes them vulnerable to harassment, whether their crime is real or imagined…. With each negative encounter … they develop defense mechanisms and toughen up to protect their pride and perceived respectability. With this built-up hostility, interactions over minor offenses, like suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, become quickly charged.
If young people are protesting, sometimes violently, it is not because they are “thugs” and “looters” as conservatives label them, but because they are too frequently treated as potential criminals, harassed daily, deprived of a decent future and cast aside as an excess population that represents a threat rather than a crucial social investment. Moreover, a culture of racism, lawlessness, cruelty and criminalization runs deep in US society and points to the need to dismantle and transform those cultural apparatuses that play a major role in disseminating hate, legitimating state violence and reproducing a culture that disdains compassion, justice, civil rights and economic equity. When young Black boys and girls see people in their neighborhood killed by the police for making eye contact, holding a toy gun, walking in a stairwell or for selling cigarettes while “the financial elite go free for a bookmaking operation that almost brought the country to economic ruin,” not only do the police lose their legitimacy, so do established norms of conduct and modes of governance.
Resistance in the name of liberal reform is not enough. Power is too concentrated; the power elite is too removed and unaccountable to have any respect for democracy; and the intellectual servants of the financial power brokers are too cowardly to speak truth to power. At the same time, it is not enough to simply call for placing checks on corporate power or for renouncing power in general. Any political strategy that matters will have to merge a notion of democratic authority based on consent, dialogue, trust and support for economic justice with a notion of power that represents the antithesis of repressive authority. Any collective struggle today must include an understanding of how to use power in the interest of democratic authority and values. Power in the service of democracy is antithetical to a political culture organized by the rule of force; it is the exercise of the polity to create the conditions in which critical agency and democracy flourish. It is the merging of democratic authority with the power of the people to insure the mutually determining conditions of freedom and justice.
Richard Bernstein captures the democratic nature of power in his analysis of the work of Hannah Arendt. He writes: “Power, which she distinguishes from strength, force, authority, and violence, arises and grows spontaneously through participation of citizens. Power is not to be understood in a vertical fashion, where power means control or domination over some individual or group. It is a horizontal concept – power springs up when individuals act together.” And it is precisely this horizontal notion of power that must be part of any collective struggle to overturn the authoritarian nightmare that currently engulfs US society.
The problems of Ferguson, Baltimore and others are not limited to those cities; they are the United States’ problems and demand a “transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building.” Recently Black youth and other concerned Americans are making real strides in moving beyond sporadic protests, short-lived demonstrations and nonviolent street actions in the hopes of building sustained political movements. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, We Charge Genocide, Dream Defenders and others represent a new and growing political force, and are not only connecting police violence to larger structures of militarism throughout society, but are also reclaiming public memory in establishing a direct link “between the establishment of professional police systems in the United States with the patrolling systems that maintained the business of human bondage in chattel slavery.”
Young people in the United States, especially poor people of color, are faced with a sense of hopelessness in the future that is almost unparalleled in recent history and is a script for despair and reckless violence. But when hopelessness moves beyond itself and embraces the need to reclaim public memory, history and empowering forms of civic literacy, there is a space for developing new modes of understanding, insight and an alternative sense of the future. Page May, one of the organizers of We Charge Genocide, makes a strong and in my mind essential argument for defining community organizers as public intellectuals and pedagogy as central to politics itself. She insists that any notion of leadership must be charged with the task of making knowledge and skills available to oppressed groups so they can not only reclaim their sense of history, and understand the current forms of oppression and how they work, but also reclaim a sense of self and social agency. She says:
One of the things I am most excited about right now is the Radical Ed Project. I think this is so essential because people are outraged, and they’re ready, but we need the skills. If we don’t do this work with the knowledge, that is out there and exists, we can wind up making vulnerable people even more vulnerable. I think we have a responsibility as organizers to be sharing this knowledge, and building up the knowledge of others in our communities, so they feel equipped to be the leaders of their own events, and the sharers of their own skills. To build a network of people who can share these skills – I think that’s so critical.
It is within such critical and energizing spaces that new pedagogical and analytical frameworks emerge in which it becomes possible to imagine a new and more comprehensive understanding of politics, one that is right for a new historical conjuncture. It is also a space in which to rethink the tactics, strategies and tools necessary to turn this newly discovered truth into an event, one in which hope merges with indignation, the ethical imagination and new political formations as part of a broader struggle to create a radical democracy. That is the challenge young people face today, but it is certainly not only their challenge. As Baldwin once stated, it is “time to go for broke.”
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