Race riots are so 1960s. The very concept almost feels like a dinosaur, an idea we thought had gone extinct. No one ever said this about the conflict on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. But that’s what it is. A race riot.
|A young man is murdered and a neighbourhood
explodes. All too common in America today. Once is
Yet it is also more than a race riot. Ferguson is different from previous conflicts between a racialized group and wider society because the violence we’ve seen in that city was purposely stoked by police actions. Protests of Trayvon Martin’s killing at the hands of a Neighbourhood Watch member in Florida two years ago did not mutate into violent riots that destroyed communities and infrastructure. Protests of Mike Brown’s killing at the hands of a police officer did.
It is obvious what the material difference is. When the St. Louis County police confronted the protesters, they were wearing camo gear, carrying military-grade assault rifles, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. When the Missouri Highway Patrol accompanied the protesters, they were wearing ordinary blue and black police uniforms, and the largest gun they carried was their standard sidearm. Those protests were peaceful affairs that saw a more ethnically-integrated police force marching in tandem with an outraged people, many even sharing their pain and outrage.
This moment of calm would not last. I doubt even the most optimistic residents of Ferguson suspected it would.* Very little trust seems to have existed between the people of Ferguson and their law enforcement officials. In a city where the revenue of police departments depend on their harassing residents for parking and driving tickets, it combines with tensions between a virtually all-white force (the number of non-white officers so low as to be statistically insignificant) to create a social environment of institutionalized predation.
* However, I don’t exactly have the funds as an independent journalist barely managing to restart this section of his career to travel to Missouri to speak with the city’s residents. If anyone wants to offer me those funds, I would not waste them.
This is even without factoring the validity of mounting anecdotal evidence of profit-free police harassment of black residents and the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old. This is even without the contemptible indignity of trying to criminalize Mike Brown with the claim that he was an armed robbery suspect at the time of his murder, a charge which even the owner of the store refutes, and which the officer who killed him didn’t know anyway. Last time I checked, petty theft wasn’t an offence warranting summary execution in Missouri.
Still, within days after peace was restored to the protests, looting and violence began again, and Missouri governor Jay Nixon has invoked emergency powers to assign a curfew to the entire city, essentially imprisoning its population as an act of collective punishment. The National Guard, the United States’ actual domestic armed forces, is now enforcing the curfew in the city. Violence continues.
• • •
But the phenomenon of Ferguson is more complex than high-grade enormous weapons simply “going to someone’s head” in the words of America’s new national conscience Jon Oliver. A person’s self-conception is rarely dominated by an image that he would recognize as fully human. We are processes more than static bodies, and our understandings shift as readily as our states of being. Ta’Nehisi Coates discusses in The Atlantic the power that American police forces have typically held over black people’s bodies in the country’s history.
|Mapping is an act of definition,
But the militarization of the police doesn’t just affect black bodies. It transforms men into weapons. Police officers do not simply become enforcers of the law when they don the uniform. They also become agents of the state, and this is a decision with profound dangers. The state is an institution that striates society, organizing it into clearly mapped coordinates. These coordinates are not simple locations, but can carry complex identifying marks. These are the marks of hierarchy, the marks by which one knows one’s place in the state order.
Perhaps Coates would call them the marks on black bodies over the centuries: the scars of whips, the burns of plantation brands, rope burns along the neck, even the haphazard scars of a billy club assault, or the pink and red craters of a rubber bullet entering the thigh or the abdomen. Rank order can be instituted through the honesty of direct violence, but more often it is done through the personality-free institution of bureaucratic rules. The state, in the name of the people, provides services for human welfare, and possibly even flourishing. But to claim them, one must become a number in the complex system of dispersing those goods.
Your social lifelines through your state are given or revoked not by the bureaucrat himself; that poor man is only a functionary, and often is sincerely sorry for the hardship he must bestow. The bureaucratic rules themselves define what the institution does. Will the taxpayers subsidize the police? Or will it be the hunt for parking and speeding violators? Which burden is more vulnerable to corruption by old prejudices? I think that much is clear. Driving While Black is the offence so common that it became a joke.
If the policeman becomes the tool of striation, part of a machine that organizes society by enforcing rank, then the militarization of the modern American police department introduces a strange new element to this dynamic. The last 20 years have seen the American military adapt its arsenal to desert warfare. The desert is a smooth space where a destructive force can move like lightning.** Massive metal bodies can shoot across these spaces, moving almost like pure destructive energy.
** The analogy can be coincidental if you’re me, or intentional if you prefer to think in echoes of devils.
We saw it in America’s two invasions of Iraq. We can see it today in the explosion of the Islamic State through the countryside of eastern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. Only in the cities and the mountains can these armies genuinely encounter resistance. Even then, the resistance must be dedicated to the prospect of extreme casualties, willing to scorch its own earth to drive the invaders away.
These forces were unleashed upon Ferguson, without even the modicum of self-consciousness lying in the discipline of the military infantryman never to point his rifle as a default stance. Even in a war machine as powerful as lightning, these checks of small mercies exist. Not so for the undertrained war machine let loose in Ferguson. The application of machines whose purpose is to destroy countries on a city full of barely armed protesters destroys inescapably. The war machines typically set loose in the desert abandon their targets as quickly as they attack, always moving on to the next. Unlike the desert, the city of Ferguson experiences wave after wave, because the material components of warfare in smooth spaces have been given to the apparatus of the state, and so focussed intently on a single place.
|For more detail on these concepts of striated
space and the war machine, read 1000 Plateaus,
chapters 14, 12, and 13.
One of the sick advantages of bureaucracy as a means of oppression is that it encourages docility. The pain is so slow to inflict that its daily dose is never more than an annoyance. The power of a weaponized people – the St. Louis County police and the Missouri National Guard – provokes explosions in reaction. Old-fashioned moral categories of blameworthiness cannot really be applied here. The population of Ferguson have become victims of rapid violence. Self-consciousness and self-control shattered, rage at these latest blatant injustices fuel action.
Police, too, have become little more than machines channelling the violence of their armour and vehicles, and the destructive racism of their anger. When given permission to explode, the explosion occurs across all dimensions of their existence. A blaze fuels its own rampage on air alone, and this last week of violence has turned people into fires.