I find it strangely fitting that Phil Sandifer’s chapter on the legendary V for Vendetta in his Last War in Albion project on the British Invasion of the American comics industry dropped this Tuesday. V for Vendetta is a work that created the most notable imagery of protest in our era, the Guy Fawkes mask that conceals your identity so you can speak your mind freely. Phil’s country, the United States of America, is having yet another revolutionary moment of its own, not only through the continuing protests and public outrage against the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri and the failure to indict the police officer who shot him to have even a public trial.
Wednesday saw a New York grand jury decline to bring any charges against police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who personally choked a middle-aged black man named Eric Garner to death on a sidewalk where he and several other officers attempted to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. Unlike the sketchy and mutually contradictory eyewitness accounts of Brown’s murder, a witness named Ramsey Orta, Garner’s friend, actually filmed the entire incident on his phone. It’s right here.
The civil unrest that has understandably followed the major events of the Brown case, and has already arisen over Garner’s murder, expresses the rage that many Americans rightfully feel against a system that is openly prejudiced against a significantly large and increasingly vocal minority. I’m glad that some resistance to the racial injustices in Western societies are getting some popular press through social media, thanks to campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #CrimingWhileWhite.
And the intellectual left in online circles rightly identifies that there are systemic causes that need to be changed. One of the bravest articles on the post-Ferguson landscape of thought about racial politics was a piece published in Jacobin Magazine a few days before the announcement that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Mariame Koba asked her readers to “indict the system.”
Understanding the systemic causes of institutionalized racism and its material injustices is very difficult for humanity to do. Humans typically understand direct causation, when someone physically acts. And we typically understand indirect causation, when an action one person takes causes someone else to act in a particular way.
But systemic causation is literally causation without agency, the causation of conditioning, tendencies, and likelihoods of what actions at the individual level will emerge from a complex set of relations. This is why it’s so difficult for so many people, like the Chief Justice of the United States' Supreme Court, to notice racism without racists. We can easily understand what it means for an individual to hold racist beliefs and treat people in discriminatorily violent ways.
Yet it’s hard for us to assign moral blame and shame to, for example, an individual white police officer who has best friends who are Hispanic, friendly neighbours who are Arab-American, and an African-American wife, but who also stops and frisks any black or Latino male walking down the street who’s lost some weight lately and is wearing old pants that are slipping. Because he’s part of an institution that has trained him in certain modes of behaviour, he himself isn’t a racist, but still behaves in racist ways because of his institutional function and training.
That's why indictments and criminal justice procedures centred on punishment aren't even really the correct means to fight the social problems we face today. Identifying the responsible party for a specific wrong act and punishing them works fine for incidents of direct and indirect causation. But the true triggerman in cases of racist police violence is the institutional system itself. Where causation is systematic, the instantiation at the individual scale is a matter of chance. Darren Wilson happened to see Michael Brown one day carrying a fistful of shoplifted cigarillos. That this was the act was bad luck. That there would be an act eventually was inevitable.
The only way to repair wrongs that occur at the systemic level is to change the actual system. This isn't a matter of retribution and punishment, but of large-scale reform, repair, and social and institutional transformation. Systematic injustice requires not retributive, but reparative justice.
The dangerous part of Western institutional systems in this case is that we give a portion of our population the power of the legitimate use of violence against all other citizens and regular access to many kinds of weaponry. Too many of us trust these people instinctively, even though such trustworthiness should never be taken for granted. My old friend Sheena, a journalist with Sun Media, tweeted an article about the Pantaleo non-indictment which had a disturbing comment section, even by the standard of internet comment threads, that terribly unnerved her.
Those commenters illustrated what I think is a terrible tendency of thought. The most important common element that I saw among all the commenters was universal trust in the judgment of police officers. If a police officer was attacking you, then you did something wrong, because police officers only attack criminals. The default attitude of these commenters is to trust without criticism or a second thought the group of people who are institutionally empowered to do armed violence to the populace.
I found the same frustration reading Robert Nozick, if for an entirely different reason. He follows a tradition in Anglo-American political philosophy of reasoning through a society’s essential political relations in the abstract argument of a social contract thought experiment. And because the abstract terms of his argument define security through a monopoly on protective services as the only legitimate function of the state, the police and the military become the only legitimate state functionaries.
Because Nozick’s work lies at the foundation of modern libertarianism, these principled individualists who stand against government violence interfering with personal liberty see more violence in a state health insurance plan or environmental regulations than in battalions of armed civil servants with the power to kill and imprison citizens with regular impunity and, at best, personal inconvenience. Libertarians should be the natural enemies of state-sanctioned violence, but I’ve met too many who show the same blind trust in the police as the poor fools I linked above.
We’ve institutionalized both racist norms and a capacity for unchecked violence in the institutional authorities we invest with the power of violence. This is a recipe for disaster and I’m glad that, as a society, we’re coming to clear grips with that. Too bad it took generations of disasters.