By Smriti Singh
‘I can’t breathe‘
The three words spoken by 46-year-old George Floyd while desperately trying to hold on to thin air for his life, have echoes that reverberate through the history of brutality against African American men and women at the hands of Caucasian Police Officers. One man’s final words, a plea for air, have stoked fires that have scorched the highest seats in the White House. Floyd’s tragic death due to extralegal police brutality has revived memories of similar cases before him. Notably, Eric Garner (died in 2014 of the chokehold of a police officer, uttering precisely the same last words) and Sgt. James Brown (died in 2012 due to police officers swarming on him while in police custody, uttering the same three words). These add to the long list of many other names who have been lost to extralegal police action. What is unmistakable in all three cases is the racial character of crime and the denial of first aid or intervention by paramedics. The immediate actions of officers involved, as well as subsequent denial of medical care or refusal of paramedics to attend to victims, are clear reasons why this is unmistakably a case of extralegal murder.
The last words of Garner and now Floyd, “I Can’t Breathe”, have become a euphemism to highlight how suffocating the racial bias of the establishment and state has become for the African American men, women and children. An unfavourable racial bias against African American population can easily be established empirically in everything from schools, universities, jobs, housing to access to health and medical facilities, banking, incarceration and even voting. Much of this has been repeatedly studied for decades with absolutely consistent outcomes. The point is that the broad picture isn’t changing. The United States of America, 244 years after its independence, is still struggling to become an authentic democracy; and 401 years after the first group of men and women from what is now the nation of Angola arrived as slaves, it is still the African American labouring to make the United States of America truly democratic.
Floyd’s murder, the following protests and the state crackdown of protests need to be carefully examined and understood to see what we need to see, understand and do.
The Caucasian Coloured Glasses and the Land of Free
One hundred fifty-five years ago, slavery in the United States was abolished. However, the 155 years of being colour blind hasn’t helped the deeply entrenched racial biases and prejudices that still shape the institutions of the state, judiciary, media, medicine and even civil society. Slavery might have been abolished, racism might have been outlawed, but the institutions and structures that represent the United States of America have yet to remove the Caucasian coloured glasses through which their land appears free.
The country that today boasts of law and order, law enforcement agencies, the judiciary has constructed a democracy atop ruins of a past discrimination, oppression and exploitation of a considerable section of both native population and those brought here as slaves. This is also evident from the discourse about ‘migrants’ that dominates the narrative of America both in its positive and negative spaces. The present Trump administration has made it brazenly obvious in stating that there are the desirable migrants and migrants from shithole countries. In this narrative, some migrants (whites) are good and they discipline the native savages and build the country; and some other migrants (Black Americans, Other non-white ethnicities/nationalities are a liability) who need to be disciplined to channel their labour in the service of the nation. The nation emphasises its ideals etched on the Statue of Liberty, “bring me your poor…”, all the while simultaneously holding on to its confederate past.
The narrative of migrants in the United States of America is one chain link away from the disciplinary power, and Foucault tells us docile bodies as the basic unit of disciplinary power. Slavery and racism heavily depended on control and discipline to produce ‘docile slaves’ of the extreme kind as evident from writings, most notably of bell hooks and W.E.B. Du Bois. It is this same disciplinary power to produce ‘docile’ Black Americans that the state institutionalises in the form of its state apparatus and state administration including law and order, judiciary and police force.
The presumed threat of resistance and retaliation by the African American male that bell books talks about in her book Ain’t I a Woman? in passing is the same kind of perceived ill-founded threat that has been used to justify the use of disproportionate force. The ruins that have been built over the foundations are festering. It is this festering that is surfacing in the form of routine acts of police brutality and disproportionate rates of Black American incarceration. It is essential, in light of George Floyd’s extra-legal murder, to see that there is an uncanny similarity between the ideas about slave bodies in 17th-18th century and criminals today. Both are seen as “things, not humans”. There is a denial of any kind of personhood in both cases, which makes for a natural congruence and superimposition of the two.
The federal government’s response only strengthens this idea whereby those protesting against a pandemic induced lockdown were encouraged by the White House, while black protestors have been termed “thugs” and “anarchists”. The president’s tweets conflate protestors and looters into one (in effect conflating resistance and criminality into one). This attitude of the central political sovereignty is reflected in the actions of Minnesota Police, which had only days before George Floyd’s killing refused to use of any force against armed white protestors who had gathered outside state capital building demanding an end to lockdown. In their selective use of force against both George Floyd (unarmed) and the protestors protesting his killing (mostly peaceful), Minnesota police characteristically are representative of the decentralised capillary power of both the state and the society at large, while intensively concerning themselves with the minutest details (Foucault, 1977: 213).
What George Floyd’s Murder tells Us
No doubt, both the extra-legal murder of Sgt. James Brown as well as Eric Garner and George Floyd represent a criminal form of racial discrimination inherent in law enforcement agencies. There is a marked difference between the two, namely of having established criminality. There is a critical point that needs attention with regards to repeated instances of Black Americans being shot at or at the receiving end of disproportionate use of force resulting in death over suspicion, and this is the key, in public spaces. While there is no denying that Black Americans face an equally horrifying ordeal while serving prison sentences that have more severely and disproportionately targeted them, what I am suggesting is that the instances such as George Floyd highlight a related but very different problem.
This is best illustrated by Steve Locke in a blog post, dated 2015, about racial profiling by the police officers. During the encounter he was stopped by the cops because he matched the description of a suspect in the neighbourhood (hoodie and knit cap critical to that description). He highlights in the post that when a cop stops a Black American for questioning on suspicion, there are two stages: before you get into a police van and after you get into a police van. As he put it, if he as a Black American got into a police van, chances of him being “accused of something I did not do rose exponentially.” This pertains to the racial discrimination that Black Americans experience when they are either in conflict with the law or plain encountering a law that exhibits a deep unfavourable bias. Not getting into the police car reduced one’s chances of being overpowered by a system which has a reputation of denying those it detains basic humanity, personhood, and any kind of say or even visibility. In public spaces governed by civil society rules, we expect to be treated as persons/humans, as people with equal standing and as people who deserve to be heard.
The second stage emerges when a Black American is confronted by police in a public space, with witnesses and space where the police are obligated by law to follow protocols of civil space (routinely flouted in prisons, with low accountability). In this space of being questioned by the police, one still has their bodily dignity and integrity. It is this bodily integrity and equal status and liberty that is routinely being violated on the ground of suspicion by the police. Black Americans are stopped, frisked and murdered in cold blood by police officials in order to produce docile Black American bodies through instilling fear that moves beyond the prisons and police cars. It has parallels to the strategy bell hooks described that the Slavers adopted on slave ships to make African men docile and subservient before they arrived at their destination. Slavers would brutally murder one of the African men bought in the slave trade to instil fear and docility, among others. The public nature of the crime is meant to instil unreasonable fear and unquestioning subservience in Black American men and women when in public space. The strategy of producing docility has similarities with the myth of Greek warrior Achilles’ myrmidons who would ensure a smooth rule through instilling a fear that anyone among the masses could be their next target. Curiously, it has time and again had the opposite effect, and for good.
Protests and Looting
The protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd have been met with excessive and almost criminal use of state apparatus to contain resistance. In a matter of days, the President issued a threat of shooting the protestors and then deployed national guards to crack down on the protests in Minnesota. Within days, as many scholars, most notably Pratap Bhanu Mehta note, the narrative shifted from being about resistance against Police Brutality and Racial Profiling by law enforcement to rioting and looting. Scholars are now debating the efficacy of violent methods of resistance and revolt, with some arguing that rioting and looting have historically been legitimate forms of protest (Aizura, 2020). Others have objected to conflating rioters and looters with the protestors, claiming those are two separate groups. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. There is no empirical way to settle the question of whether or not these are the same people or not. The two options available right now in existing public discourse is that either rioting/looting are alright as a legitimate form of protest or that looters and rioters are different from the protestors. In the former, one seems to run the risk of being labelled rogue and counter-productive, a ‘savage’ Black American; in the latter case one risks arguing oneself as a docile, Black American protestor. Both the situations ends up reiterating the problematic racist discourse controlled by the white man’s narrative.
We fall prey to arguing that there is a perfect subjecthood which the Black Americans must embody in order for the masses to support the cause. That Black Lives Matter protests must stick to protocols of protests; Black American protestors must prove their docility, for us to extend our unwavering support. In trying to weigh our justification of rioting and looting amidst ongoing protests against police brutality, I think we are missing a crucial relationship between the two (protests, and ‘looting’/‘rioting’).
Let us unravel this a bit. When the heat on rioting and looting started to shift mass attention from the issue of police brutality to ‘threat of violence’ by black protestors, Tamika Mallory, National Co-Chair of Women’s March, made a speech, one that is remarkable for multiple reasons. In her speech, she said, “America has looted black people. America has looted black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learnt violence from you. If you want us to do better, then damn it you do better.” What is significant is that she is both invoking history situating the present in the history of slavery while simultaneously suggesting that the ‘looting’ is ongoing and can be and needs to be stopped.
This is the key to understanding the episodes of looting and rioting amidst protests against the police brutality. The protests as it always happens bring together within a larger umbrella multiple issues, a rage that emerges from multiple points of unrest and discontent. While the protests are against police brutality, the anger against systematic oppression and discrimination marginalising Black Americans by limiting their life choices and life chances cannot be forgotten. The anger right now is not just against the police but against an establishment that systematically traps a majority of the Black American population in poverty, debt, limited access to education, limited opportunities of employment. Looting is symptomatic of anger against this structural discrimination causing Black Americans to struggle more to achieve less. The anger recognises that the painful disparity experienced by Black Americans is built into the system. Their poverty is the necessary condition for the flourishing of predominantly white businesses. It is anger against this artificially produced poverty that the Black Americans are systematically being condemned to. The rioting similarly is symptomatic of the distrust of law, state apparatus and state administration. Tamika is right in saying that what they (establishment and system) are doing is looting systematically through normalised, continuous, everyday violence (and by the protection of the law), while those incidents of looting are marked as violent.
The Civil Society
Civil society and the fractures within it is yet another interesting take that emerges from this whole incident. Civil society is not a homogenous whole, which Foucault in his writing cautions us about. Civil society is also one source of the capillary power that these police officers have which justifies their actions. Today it is the same privileged sections of civil society that is demanding answers. Incidents of white men and women acknowledging their undue racial privilege and using it to support and shield Black American protestors have been heartening to see. People collectively are refusing to accept that this is their nation. They are claiming back for themselves their identity, refusing to resign.
The protesters are being termed either a ‘thug’ or ‘liberal hippie’ depending on the colour of their skin. This has also highlighted again that this decade is one characterised by increasing incidents of the state attacking its own people. All around the world incidents of an elected state administration attacking its own people, using punitive and often fatal amounts of force and a crackdown on dissent have become too frequent. This raises bigger questions on the contemporary role and relevance of the elected democratic state and its future. The question it raises in the American context as in any other right now is: What shape has democracy taken? Which is more important – the state or its people?
Tamika’s speech gives hope to me. She says that Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. She suggests that those who are most oppressed by the system are labouring to live up to its promise of freedom and democracy. She says, “Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.” She calls Black Americans “perfecters of this democracy” and I can hear her words resonating through different contexts.
P.S. The author expresses gratitude towards Prof. Srinivasa Rao, ZHCES, JNU for initial impetus and critical inputs.
I explicitly say black Americans because white Americans are clearly held to different standards as is evident from differential treatment of protestors gathered outside Minnesota town hall protesting against statewide lockdown. The docility of black bodies has received a lot more attention by the United States through meticulously crafted ideas of criminality projected on Black American culture and Black American Bodies.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books.
hooks, b. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. South End Press.
Smriti Singh, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Social Science and Humanities, IIIT-Delhi.
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