Society Must Be Defended #readin

When I saw Paige West and J.C. Salyer’s call to mark January 20th with a read-in of lecture eleven of Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, I was excited to re-read the lecture in light of the right-wing ascendancy in U.S. politics. As West and Salyer note, this lecture in particular is a useful text now because “it demands we simultaneously consider the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race.” I did my reading a little bit early, because I knew that I’d be busy on Friday, as a series of direct actions were being planned to disrupt the inaugural proceedings (and we were largely successful). This post is partially about Foucault and the read-in, and partially an initial foray into thinking through Friday’s events. More to come, I’m sure.

Foucault’s lecture is critical because of its close attention to biopolitics and sovereignty, something crucial to a number of the issues represented at the direct actions on Friday. As West and Salyer noted, this is a time when “the reaction to activism against persistent racism has been to more overtly perpetuate racism as political discourse, [and] we need to remember and re-think the role of racism as central to, rather than incidental to, the political and economic activities of the state.” Same with sexism, same with xenophobia, same with homophobia, same with Islamophobia. Many of these ideologies are part of the American state in general, of course, but they are all crucial and central building blocks of the current administration’s claim to power. Losing the popular vote by millions, Trump has no real mandate to govern. The only mandate he can lay claim to is a voting bloc built around white supremacists, misogynists, and nativists.

“Sexuality,” Foucault states, “exists at the point where body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (251-252). The rise of biopolitics and biopower brought about a new set of technologies that measured and quantified the population that needed to be regulated, in addition to marking the body that needed to be disciplined. Efforts to measure, maintain, and control reproduction and fertility were at the center of this in the late eighteenth century, and continue today as the struggle over the bodily autonomy of women is unfinished.

An important point that Foucault highlights, though, is how “the emergence of this biopower… inscribes [race] in the mechanism of the State. It is at this moment that racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States” (254). This has roots in settler colonialism and the slave trade, and racism continues to be tied to the state now. The racial logic of biopower leads the state to wage war not against a political enemy but against a racial Other. “From this point on, war is about two things: it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that [sort] of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (257), i.e. for white supremacists, not a war on terrorist organizations in specific locales but a war against Muslims everywhere, not an effort to reform immigration policies but a war to prevent particular races from entering this country, not a war on crime but a criminalizing of black life.

Reading this lecture before #j20, it became readily apparent that the commonalities between the various groups offended, affected, targeted, and attacked by Trump and his supporters lie in the biopolitical. In the first days of Trump’s administration, it is clear just how right those fears are. He has appointed white supremacists to senior government posts, including Customs and Border Protection. He has signed an executive order restricting abortion access that has serious impacts for women’s reproductive rights and health globally, and which promises to actually increase the number of unsafe abortions, in an effort to exert control over women’s bodies. He approved both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (which he has stock in), while simultaneously instituting a blackout at the EPA and other agencies. His senior appointments promise to destroy our planet, eviscerate labor, and punish the press for holding his government accountable.

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These four people were at the center of a blockade of one of the entrances to the Trump inaugural parade. The Future is Feminist blockade lasted six and a half hours and was just one of over a dozen actions on Friday, January 20th.

On the day of his inauguration, we saw a coalition of activists stand in the way of Trump’s rule. Every single issue-based group involved had good reason to resist a Trump presidency. Women’s rights, black rights, indigenous rights, Muslim rights, and labor rights have been under attack from before the beginning. Climate, anti-war, and anti-police activists have been under attack as well. Certain forms of protest are being made illegal, meaning mobilization against the government will become more difficult. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Friday, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as we move into (and push against) this new government. But for now, the key takeaway is that all of these groups and more came together Friday to ensure that there is no smooth transition to an authoritarian regime, to show a refusal to acquiesce, to be ungovernable, to defend society with their bodies and their voices.

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Intersections, on encountering police

When I lived in New Haven, a young man on a motor scooter crashed into my parked car at an intersection in the Wooster Square neighborhood. I was walking home at the time, and turned the corner as a police officer was writing up some notes. The officer asked if I knew the owner of the car, I said it was me, he told me that the “kid” was going up a one-way street in the wrong direction and, when he saw the officer, tried to speed away and lost control, crashing into my car. The officer told me that he had found drugs on the young man.

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An intersection in New Haven. (Google Maps)

I fidgeted a lot, worried about the man in the back of the police car. I tried to look at him from where I was standing, to see who he was, but I didn’t want him to feel like I was gawking. New Haven doesn’t have a history of good race relations or of good police conduct. I wanted him to feel my worry and my solidarity, but I wasn’t sure how to convey it. I wanted to ask the officer if I could not press charges, but I knew that neither possessing drugs nor driving the wrong way were crimes “against” me, but against the state. I wanted to ask the young man if there was anyone I could call for him, anybody I could tell about what happened. I was nervous around the officer; I did none of these things. I stood by as he continued talking.

As we were standing there, a middle-aged white woman driving by slowed down and rolled down her window. “THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!” she shouted at the officer. He waved at her. They might have talked for a moment. She drove away.

I was not thankful for the arrest of another one of New Haven’s black youth. The young man in the backseat of that squad car certainly wasn’t thankful either. But her grateful outpouring for the policing presence was probably enough for the three of us. This experience – the blind appreciation for policing the neighborhood – is ingrained in my memory.

The lived experiences of policing are so, so different depending on where you live or what you look like. The intersections of state and society are not the same for everyone. In every place I’ve lived in, I’ve seen this. SB 1070 in Arizona. Stop and frisk in New York. A one-way street in New Haven. The intersections at which police and everyday people meet, depending on the city, the neighborhood, the block, can be polar opposites.

*  *

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A street in Arizona. (Google Maps)

When I was a teenager, I was driving home from somewhere. A police car drove past me, and I saw it flip a dramatic U-turn in my rear view mirror. I drove slowly, trying to let him pass to whatever demanded his attention. He didn’t pass. I turned into my neighborhood, and he followed. I decided I would stay on a road with more traffic, and pulled over by the neighborhood mailbox instead of going to my house. The officer pulled over behind me. His lights weren’t on.

I hesitated. My parents – like many parents of sixteen-year-olds – had taught me what to do when pulled over by a police car, but parents don’t usually teach you what to do when an officer follows you for half a mile without turning the lights on and then pulls over behind you when you stop.

Trying to act casual, I got out of my car and I picked up the mail. I stood by my car. I think a few people drove by, but I don’t remember. I do remember wishing that my parents or one of my friends would just happen to be passing. Someone who knew me. I remember standing on the sidewalk, feeling vulnerable, immediately regretting that I was not still in my car. The police officer rolled down his window and looked at me like I might have something to say, but he remained silent.

“Is there a problem, officer?” I asked. I remember asking it like that because I think that’s what they say in movies. He gestured towards his laptop and told me he was checking to see if my car was stolen. He didn’t mention it matching a description or a recent call or similar plates or anything. After a pause, he said everything checked out, and he drove off. I lingered for a while before getting back in my car and driving home, unnerved.

That was before SB 1070, but police have been profiling long before it was law. (I grew up half-white, half-brown in a more-than-half-white town, county, state). This was before I had really come to realize how easily a man in a car with lights on top of it – even if the lights weren’t on – could make you feel like you had done something wrong, like you were in trouble, like you might not make it home. I learned quickly. I learned around the corner from my house. (And that was in a middle class, white neighborhood in which I wasn’t stopped, nor arrested, and no weapon was drawn on me – a huge sign of privilege in and of itself).

*  *

I often think about the guy with the scooter. I wish I had done more, not knowing exactly what more I could have done. Once I think about him, I begin to think about my own encounters with police, as a brown-skinned driver in Arizona, or as a protester in New York (another story, another time), and think about how they compare to my experiences with police when I was in a car accident, or when I needed directions downtown somewhere. I often think about how these situations shift, how much depends on so little. Every encounter depended on what intersection it happened at (and who was involved). Most of my encounters with police have involved no confrontation, they’ve been professional, and no harm was caused. But it’s the moments of unease that remain with me, and even my encounters have been remarkably unremarkable. I was followed once, and I saw someone get arrested. I was wrestled to the ground in a protest once, but I got away scared but relatively unscathed. But these moments are what I think of when I think of police. People remember their vulnerability more than any run-of-the-mill interaction.

I’m not a victim of police violence, that’s for sure. I’ve only ever been inconvenienced and a little unnerved. I’ve never been in the real danger that whole segments of our society know all too well. Policing happens everywhere, but it looks different. I’ve often thought about writing about these anecdotes, but I never know what to say about it all. I’m typing this now because I read about what happened to Steve Locke a month ago.

Locke is a professor in Boston, and he was stopped by police while getting lunch on his way to class because he fit the description of someone who broke into a nearby house. The description was essentially black-person-in-winter. The whole account is worth reading, but this excerpt is what got to me:

Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police.  People look at you like you are a criminal.  The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you.  No one made eye contact with me... An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop.  She turned and looked at me and then back at him.  “You guys sure are busy today.” I noticed a black woman further down the block.  She was small and concerned.  She was watching what was going on.  I focused on her red coat.  I slowed my breathing.  I looked at her from time to time. I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.

The difference between the two passersby is a crucial gap in society. Those who feel protected and those who feel vulnerable. Those who admire police officers (and want to thank them blindly and profusely) and those who fear them. Those who are thankful that they can live their lives in safety because of those who serve and those who just want to live their lives, but can’t, for the same reason.

Experiences with law enforcement are different depending on the people and places involved. But the moments that stick – to me and to others – are those encounters tense with vulnerability and fear. Some, like me, know these moments from a rare experience thanks to our privilege. Many don’t know them at all. But a number of people also know these moments all too well.

This fundamental difference in how we live our lives is an obstacle to real change that can improve the lives of those on the other side of the law’s enforcement. I was nervous for the person in the backseat that day in New Haven, but what I was feeling was probably nothing compared to what he was dealing with. The woman who drove by knew nothing about the situation, but she blindly expressed gratefulness to the uniform standing next to me. These different perspectives, on Centre Street in Boston, on Hughes Place in New Haven, on every street in the country, are something that I can’t get out of my head. If we are going to be able to create a society where there is less police oppression of minority communities, we need to make an attempt to understand how those communities experience the police presence.

White Supremacist Terrorism in Charleston, and in Our History

I’ve been closely following the news from Charleston, where a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. As I write this, it appears that the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, has been arrested in North Carolina.

The church that was the target of the shooting is a historic landmark and site of black resistance, and has been for centuries. Yesterday was the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s aborted slave revolt. Vesey was an early member of the church (I’ve heard even a founding member, but am unsure), which was burned down as the revolt’s organizers were hanged.

When the shooter was first identified, a Facebook profile picture was circulated that showed him wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-rule Rhodesia on it. The state of South Carolina flies the Confederate flag over the capitol.

There is a deep history to white supremacy and black resistance to it. It’s a violent history. It’s one we need to reckon with, and that we haven’t. I’ll paraphrase Angus Johnston by saying that we need to do more to teach the long history of racial violence, as part of an effort to raise anti-racists (do read the linked tweets, please).

Just as important is the history of the struggle. Teaching about resistance against hate, against oppression, is an imperative if we are to continue resisting these things. Just today, several pieces were published about the role of the AME church in the history of both white supremacist violence and black resistance.

Jamelle Bouie calls Emanuel AME Church “a historical symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism,” and Dave Zirin wrote a short piece detailing the long history of its place in 300 years of anti-racist, abolitionist history. This article on the place of black churches as symbols in American history is worth reading, in full. Here’s an excerpt on this AME church in particular:

while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.

Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston, South Carolina, discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.

That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those that pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two being the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.

There’s a lot of history behind this act of violence. There’s a lot of history behind all of them. This country – this world – is marked by white supremacy. Its an idea that forms the foundations of our country, and its an idea that is tearing it apart. This is all part of our history.

Edit to add: The twitter hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus is a growing collection of suggested readings and other resources for any educator (or person eager to learn), focused on race and violence in South Carolina – and the South more broadly – as well as critical readings of race in America, the Confederacy, and white supremacy in general. Also, remember that this hashtag follows in the footsteps of #FergusonSyllabus, which continues to be a resource on the same issues.

Coates on Reparations

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an important piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue of reparations for the U.S.’s racist history. It went live on Thursday to a lot of hubbub, but I wanted to dedicate a short post to tell you all to read the whole thing in full.

Coates uses housing as his framework for viewing America’s history, focusing on the long plunder of the 20th century. He spends much of the rest of the article arguing for reparations by showing how the repercussions of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration continue to punish black people. He also criticizes efforts to help the disadvantaged without taking race into account.

Coates also wrote here about tracing his line of thinking from opposing reparations four years ago. It includes links to several interesting pieces, all factors in his thought process. Coates also penned this short footnote to the article, highlighting why it is an important issue to tackle. Both are worth perusing if you’re interested.

In response, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this piece about education’s role in inequality and the (lack of) potential it has for being the channel through which we can attain a more equitable future. She brings numbers to the game, for those who like them, from a recent economic policy paper. Summarizing the findings, she states: “No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees.” She closes by arguing that “[w]hen we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.”

Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote this piece reflecting on how culture would have to change in order for such reparations to occur. She sheds some light on American media and how much attention has been paid to slavery and racism through what we watch. There’s also an interesting piece on the recent Caribbean effort to gain reparations from European countries for 400 years of slavery and colonization, and this piece outlining ways to actually see reparations through.

(If you know of other good pieces on Coates’ article, leave them in the comments.)