Unity and the Police

I don’t really consume any television news sources, so the tv at the gym has been a revelation. In the worst sense.

Of course, as you might guess, most of it was a combination of endless heartbreak pieces about the dead police officers in Dallas and commentaries meant to focus and direct our response. I mean, it was flat out endless repetition of their faces and names and exhortations to be sad (in very specific ways) about it all. The Sterling and Castile stories, from the same moment, were predictably always about “the investigation,” something that was posited as an ongoing something, but we never knew (or know) what’s actually going on, what’s the process, who is involved, to what end, what are the source materials, what do they expect or hope to find, and so on. The victims themselves in those two cases? Well, there’s no exhortation to remember and mourn. They, by which I mean their deaths, are overwhelmed by “the investigation.”

There’s nothing surprising about this. I’m observing nothing but the expected and the common. It’s a standard, old as I can remember, combination of media racism and worship of the militarized state – even as that militarization takes on new forms and targets us. It’s all part of our learning to love the repressive state apparatus. By “our,” I here mean mostly white people, for whom fearing the repressive state apparatus is not the first go-to, but instead a last resort, something worked out on the bodies of protesters here and there. The whole pitch for white people begins with love for the repressive state apparatus, renewing it if we’ve felt it slip, and nothing brings people and apparatuses closer than death inside that apparatus (the slain officer, the personal story of the Army soldier, the special forces op that resulted in a sad death, American Snipers all of them). That’s a really important aesthetic feature of media politics in this kind of moment. Love, then learn to love again when you fall from passion.

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But what kept coming back on the news screen, surely predictably, in every interview or panel, was this whole “we must unite” thing. In a certain sense, that originates in the fear of a rebelling populace, which changes the fear-first approach to asserting the repressive state apparatus in Black and brown communities and replaces, or at least appears to replace, fear with a certain kind of love. With friendship. With fraternity. Racialized all the way down, at one level (we all know that polite interactions with the police won’t blanket save Black lives), but also coded as proper citizens, which have always been racialized citizens, the first citizens, white Americans.

It’s interesting enough that this love, friendship, and fraternity – the variations I can see in this “unity” talk – is a sick, twisted demand to love your abuser. And the crooked belief that somehow this can work, if in fact that’s what’s behind the whole thing. I think this repetitive exhortation, worked to perfection on CNN yesterday morning, functions differentially, to rally white viewers around the love they’ve already come to have (or come to think they should have) for the repressive state apparatus, which in turn marks the dissenter – the protester, the Black person – as an outsider because of their own moral failure to mobilize as mourners. It helps, too, when we see the spectacle of citizens lining up to “hug a Dallas cop,” as we did yesterday (11 July) in viral videos. That multi-racial citizenry hugged their way, symbolically (and perhaps materially), into the repressive state apparatus fan club. The fan club is for citizens, whether that reassures your citizenship or bestows it for the first time (the distinction might not even work here; perhaps every repetition is a first time). For everyone initiated, the non-initiates look all the more outside, problematic, disposable, frightening, foreign, and therefore more readily available for abuse. Why didn’t you hug an officer today?

Just to underscore it: this “belonging” is nothing more than participation in rituals of submission to the police. Because the police are everywhere, this is a crucial initiation that repeats itself on the screen. Are you sufficiently sad about the killing of these officers? Are you sufficiently rallied to the side of the police as an institution and symbol? It’s like a test on the screen as Don Lemon moves from guest to guest, with the occasional dissenter (bless them, they do crazy hard work) getting shouted at and shamed for not articulating belonging properly. I watched Alicia Garza speak and insist and argue and hold her ground, and all I could think was, damn, that is some will and courage.

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All of this is to say a little bit of something about the viral photo of Ieshia Evans at a Baton Rouge protest (by Jonathan Bachman, with Reuters), confronting the fully militarized police with nothing more than her presence. Nothing more than her presence. That means so much to me, this “nothing more,” not because it makes for a compelling contrast – thinking here of the iconic photo of hippies putting flowers in the gun barrels of police and National Guard troops – but because it is just a simple presence, woman in an everyday dress with her everyday posture, hair, glasses, stance, set to mark with undeniable clarity the people with whom we are relentlessly called to say “unity.” In our everyday clothes, like Evans, we are supposed to say unity with paramilitary forces. I think we have to be blunt about that. Why are we the ones called to unity? Who wants to live in that burning house, to evoke Baldwin’s famous imagery of a racist United States? Well, that’s the work of race as violence. Plenty of people.

I don’t think this is news to folks who think and work hard on race, racism, and the state. Nothing here is meant to be that. Rather, I’m just saying that we have, in ways I haven’t seen so clearly articulated, the terms of belonging set out in front of us without any trace of ambiguity. The cops aren’t smiling, middle-aged chiseled jaw men in friendly repose or laughing with children. They aren’t even that super sad guy from The Leftovers. That rhetorical thing is gone, at least in this moment. What’s left is a paramilitary unit, our unity aspiration, converging on a private home in Baton Rouge, LA to arrest and suppress protestors and protests. And then the call to unify with them. To see, not that they belong to us in a shared humanity (no, never that, not any longer), but that we, through our expressed love and dedication, can belong to them through rituals of submission and praise. Because we aren’t the same. I sit in this apartment in southern California, writing this in boxer shorts and a t-shirt; protesters in these clips wear a few more clothing items and hold their phones up; the paramilitary forces, which we habitually call “the police” still, carry machine guns, drive military vehicles, and wear all the gear of warfare.

And that’s what it means for us to imagine unity these days. An odd sense of democracy.

I wonder, too, to reach a bit with speculation, if this isn’t also a way of framing the “new Jim Crow.” Because it marks one form of belonging that the racial terror of the police ensures cannot belong, in any deep or abiding sense, to Black people. Racial terror means the repressive state apparatus means racial terror. You can’t love the apparatus on those terms. Instead, you endure or rebel, in each case expressing, arguably, aspects of the necropolitical order in which killing or sacrifice seem the only paths of resistance. While simultaneous with that is the exhortation to whites: belong through love, this is your unity. Behind the police. They stormtroop for you. Learn to love that.

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