This will not be written in a philosophical voice.
I can’t stop thinking about Mike Brown’s body: unceremoniously left in the street for hours and then subjected to multiple autopsies. I want to quickly sketch out what I see as some of the implications of Mike Brown’s body in the fallout of his murder.
As a prelude to that sketch, I want to begin with a general principle: #ACAB. In my work, which is no longer in academia, I am confronted on a daily basis with police, justice systems, and their violent attempt to control and regulate poor, black, and brown bodies. This work seems to confirm the principle of #ACAB. But, you don’t have to trust me or my recounting of empirical experience. #ACAB because police brutality in black and brown communities is a structural problem reflecting the racist origins of the United States. Racism concerns, among many other things, the unequal distribution of resources. This unequal distribution can only be maintained by violence. In preserving this unequal distribution of resources along the axis of race, there is an unequal distribution of violence along the axis of race. Hence the police. Hence, Mike Brown and the many, many others whose words were left hanging in the air. The targeted violence of racism is structural and its particular manifestation are the police. I mention this because I think it is a necessary starting point for thinking about what Mike Brown’s body implies.
The implications I want to follow concern how racist systems of governance structure grief and knowledge. On the one hand, I’m thinking about Judith Butler’s work on whose lives/ bodies are seen as grievable by the state. Ungrievable lives are murdered by officers of the state; their bodies unceremoniously left in the street for hours. The state handles grievable lives quite differently. One the other hand, I think this moment draws our attention to how our racial order classifies what subjects are deemed as trustworthy sources of truth–and are, therefore, considered subjects. Here, I am thinking of the multiple autopsies performed on Mike Brown’s body. Each autopsy attempted to uncover the truth or falsity of violent racism on Mike Brown’s body. The body moved up the federal ladder, each rung up supposedly guaranteeing more objectivity and truth making power. Yet, these autopsies—these repeated invasions of a body not deemed grievable by the state—both disavow the structural violence of police occupation of black and brown communities and deny the validity of community knowledge about the role of state violence in these communities.
I’m sure there are many more implications. I’m sure I’ve missed some things. This murder is a condensed node, which is why it exploded as it did. But, I’d like to sit with these two implications for a while longer.
First, to the point about grief and dignity in death. A white police officer, in a state untouched by reconstruction, gives an unarmed young black man some directives. The situation escalates because #ACAB. The police officer murders the young black man. His body sits unattended for hours.
This image overlaps with a host of others.
Polyneices’ body left to rot without ceremony outside of the city to establish Creon’s rule. Eteocles can be buried and grieved, not Polyneices. Law forbids publicly grieving Polyneices. One cannot afford him the dignity of death ritual. If the state sanctioned distribution of grief is broken, death will befall you, or at least tanks and militarized police will reestablish order. This image comes to me immediately because of my training, but it may not be the most appropriate one. There are others.
Black bodies thrown overboard the slave ship without ceremony, without attempt to spare them from the fate of sharks by weighing them down. Quite simply, nothing more than the commodification of human life as a mechanism of dehumanization. One only grieves the loss of the value of the commodity, not the commodity itself. The technology of the ship establishes a global economy. The technology of the slave ship is central to this. The commodification of the human through race is the central metaphysics of capitalist economic, political, and social structure.
The broken bodies of black criminals thrown into mass graves after the private companies worked them to death. See above. Add to this, the evolving role of the criminal justice after the civil war. This image harkens the peculiar normalization of the premises of slavery in the United State’s criminal justice system.
The bodies of black men in trees–or in the wrong neighborhood wearing hoodies–subjected to a paranoid vigilante justice.
The black and brown bodies crammed into detention and correctional centers, jails and prisons. Potential forced into the state of suspended animation, caught in the criminal justice mesh.
Vertigo ensues as time collapses on itself and we can oft feel the whirlwind of confusion caused by such consistent repetitions of violence. For a state founded on human trafficking, the striation of grievable and non-grievable lives mirrors the race of those lives that created a commodity of human life and those who were commodified to establish the primary accumulation of capitalism. The lives not deemed grievable are stripped of dignity and afforded only stigma. The state cannot recognize the value of those lives without recognizing its dehumanizing racial order. This order dictates who shall be grieved and who shall not.
Of course, this does not always work. Hence, the revolts, which are an expression of unlawful grief. It was (is) an unlawful grief not only for the body of Mike Brown, but for all of the bodies that came before him. Enough bodies for the charge of genocide to be made in earnest. Enough bodies for the charge of terrorism to be made in earnest. I agree with both counts.
Second, to the point about the autopsies and knowledge. Mike Brown’s body became subject to the truth producing institutions of governance. This plays out in what the autopsies attempt to uncover–the reconstruction of what happened through its imprint on the body. The long, tedious, discussions of shots, angles, bruises, breaks, are a fetish. Like all fetishes, they divert. “It is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces.”
The truth of Ferguson does not lie in reconstructing the intention of Darren Wilson. It cannot be revealed in the abstractions of the state.
Searching for intention in Mike Brown’s broken body diverts from the structural nature of the carceral mesh and all of its violent keepers occupying black and brown communities. It diverts from the militarization of those occupying forces–militarized because racism assumes black and brown communities are more criminal and, thus, more dangerous. It diverts from the structural nature of segregation. It diverts from the historical origins of ongoing racist terrorism.
The truth of Mike Brown’s death cannot be found in the abstracted institutional reconstructions produced by the very systems of governance of which the police is a part. The mind cannot see itself. A racist system of governance cannot see the structural nature of its own racism.
Moreover, trying to locate the truth of Mike Brown’s death through the autopsy denies the truth value of the collective knowledge of these communities–a knowledge born of the terrorism of racist occupation. It devalues collective counter knowledge; it erases the dignity of being trustworthy source of knowledge and meaning making. It disavows the emotional and social fabric that ties people together in a community.
Quite simply, it gives the abstracted rationalizations of science–reconstructed from the tears in flesh, their angles, bruises, and broken bones–more epistemological weight than the collective empirical claims of a community.
There is a whole social context informing the murder that makes it immediately readable as murder to a community under the occupation of an alienating and violent police force. This context is informed not only by Mike Brown’s body, but also by many, many, other bodies. This murder is an example not only of the systematic violence of racism found in Ferguson, but also of the systematic violence against black and brown communities all over the United States.
The constant assault on Mike Brown’s body to bring the light of rationality to the truth or falsity of racism is nothing more than the violent symptom of both the enactment and the repression of structural racism. It is the violent effacement of the dignity of black and brown bodies and voices.
In the end, we are going to need a different source of law–a law not based on the metaphysics of commodity fetishism and the slave ship. It cannot be founded on the denial of the pain and humanity of some to ensure the prosperity of others. It will have to be a law secure enough to not imagine truncheons, jackboots, tanks, assault rifles, and the surplus of empire as its body. It will have to be a law born of the grief of reparations and grounded in the capacity to trust the knowledge of others so that we can set the course of collective self determination.
It will come forth from many more Fergusons.
“Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”