The Contemporary Condition

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

24 Hours in America’s Gulag

Lori Marso
Union College

I can understand why Toya Graham, Baltimore mom, smacked down her only son to keep him from becoming “the next Freddie Gray,” desperate and violent as it was. After her actions were caught on video and went viral, the nation congratulated her for “keeping order” in her family. She later clarified, however, that her motivation was not to discipline her son, but to keep him out of jail. Her Facebook post said: “Really, do u know what they will do to u?” “They” are the police in America’s gulag. And all parents should be afraid.


I have been thinking about the desperate 24 hours I spent about a year ago in the Schermerhorn Courthouse in Brooklyn where my 22-year-old son was being held and I worried about his safety. Aside from police and court officers, my niece and I were the only white people present. We were the only whites among over one hundred family members of those jailed in the basement below, unseen and unheard, awaiting arraignment. I alternately waited on a bench, or stood in line, clutching my “prisoner’s” assigned number, the line slowly snaking to the small closed window, where there were white people, the bureaucrats assigned to looking up our cases. The man behind the window would inform us that there was no information, and that what we could do was simply wait, and get back in line. 

So I waited, fending off panic attacks by listening to and speaking with the family members around me. I had just taught Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, in my African American Political Thought class, that semester, and so I should not have been surprised by the stories of police harassment, police violence, surveillance, and the day to day experience of it being made known that your life simply does not matter. But the stories took on a new urgency, book learning turning into my own experience, as it was now me who was there, waiting to hear about my own son, and being told by family members, kindly but also in a warning tone, that as long as I did not find his number on the list moving to Rikers Island, that the worst may not happen.


The emotions closest to the surface for me were helplessness and rage. How could my son possibly be sent to Rikers? How could he have disappeared into a bureaucracy, worst yet, a basement, in confinement, and I had absolutely no right to speak to him or have access to a lawyer? I worried about the worst, and the families around me confirmed these nightmares. Yes, the conditions below were horrific—those jailed were in overcrowded and unsanitary quarters with scant food or water, completely beholden to the discretion of the jailers. No, we have no rights until after arraignment which could take up to 72 hours, and even then, our rights are a crapshoot, depending on which courtroom and which judge to whom one’s prisoner was assigned. Listening and sometimes holding hands with other mothers, I was told that the daily lives of the families I spoke with were full of constant abuse, dehumanization, and ever consuming fear for the safety and well being of their children. 

What was most amazing to me was the help I received in navigating the situation and the solidarity extended to me, an outsider to the system. It was obvious that I was out of my element and I turned immediately to others for consolation and commiseration, but also for advice. When I was advised to go out and retrieve bail money in anticipation of arraignment, a woman held my prisoner number and promised to watch the lists for me. She informed me that if there is not a family member present in the courtroom, it is highly unlikely for the prisoner to be brought up for arraignment and that my son should not miss his chance while I was out getting money. I was so discombobulated at the ATM, however, that I locked myself out of my account using all the wrong passwords and returned with nothing. A group of people promised to get bail money together, whatever my son and I needed, so that given the chance we could get out “before night court was over.” The level of organization and solidarity was striking to me, emerging as it did under such tense and difficult conditions. I was deeply grateful and also quite impressed. 


Unlike for so many of the protestors arraigned recently in Baltimore, in my son’s case, bail wasn’t needed. After 24 hours, we left the Courthouse, all charges (riding a bike on a sidewalk, petty drug possession, and violation of park curfew) dismissed for “time served.” We escaped, but families like the ones I met in the Schermerhorn Courthouse are treated every single day as less than citizens, made to realize, in a brutal and direct way, that they have diminished control over their future. Parents know all too well the anxiety of feeling they cannot even keep their children safe, much less hope for a decent education and good jobs. Just for a moment I shared their fate and had to bear the burden of this intense feeling of helplessness, but thankfully, my son and I were able to walk away. 

Most of what white Americans hear, see, and read is framed by the dominant media with its racist and classist assumptions about the sanctity of property and respect for the law, a position that disavows state violence while highlighting the violence of protestors and “rioters.” The media framing of Toya Graham’s actions are a case in point. How can we begin to understand the conditions of life in Black America without hearing from those directly affected and trying to understand their perspectives?


To ignore the daily conditions of life for non-white and poor Americans is a national crime. My experience with the police state in New York City has profoundly affected how I have understood events in Baltimore in response to the murder of Freddie Gray, and the many other black lives lost this year (and every year) to police violence. Because of my experience, the physical violence of incarceration and the emotional violence inflicted on families are now a little closer for me in my imagination. Having experienced police power more directly, even though only for a short moment, the irruption of the anger of those who live within this “other America” seems to me viscerally clear and compelling. These are the responses from the depths of America’s gulag. 

Democratic Resistance in Baltimore

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

On The Nightly Show of April 28, Larry Wilmore opened with the following deadly serious jokes, setting the perfect tone for an analysis of events in Baltimore: “Violent thugs run amok in the streets of Baltimore. But enough about the police department…Officials and police officers call for nonviolence. A nation of black people replies: you first. It’s time to channel your outrage.”


Wilmore’s commentary on the news coverage of Baltimore’s uprising began with a clip from ABC’s Good Morning America. Baltimore youth could be seen from overhead throwing rocks at heavily-armed police as George Stephanopoulos reported (now paraphrasing) that the Maryland governor had declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard after violence erupted overnight. The footage was no doubt meant not only to show (especially white) viewers the violence Stephanopoulos referenced, but to rationalize the reactions of state and city officials and induce a widespread sense of fear as police are seen retreating under the onslaught of advancing youths.



Later on Wilmore pointed out the long connection between oppression and riot in American political history, starting in the founding period with perhaps the country’s most revered act of violent resistance: the Boston Tea Party. Though he didn’t address the GMA clip, the video of a militarized police force collapsing in the face of civic resistance was thrilling to behold. It reversed the passivity that the state takes for granted and relies on among its citizens, which is crucial to the police acting as if it has carte blanche to treat citizens, especially those of color, any way it pleases. When police and citizens encounter and engage one another on America’s streets, even when it’s in a political context, the state and its police arrogate to themselves an institutionally superior position and subordinate citizens to second-class standing. Protest politics always effectively proceeds with the permission of the state and under its armed surveillance. This norm is democratically perverse and must be challenged.


When, for example, minorities oppressed along lines of race, class, or gender take to the streets, aroused and indignant regarding questions of fundamental justice and basic governance, the police should stay in or return to their barracks. The operating assumption in American politics is that the police must be able to control the people assembled whenever it is deemed socially or politically necessary by public officials. These officials may invoke law and order or keeping or restoring the peace, but hegemonic political interests and the distribution of power are always involved. Rather, the assumption must be that police can only successfully fulfill their mandate with the active cooperation of all of the people, especially minorities. If they do not have it, if, say, they run into massive democratic resistance on the part of dispossessed minorities who refuse to accept state-sponsored violence, they should exercise the better part of discretion and bow to the people’s will. There are occasions when they need to surrender the streets, not offer a show of force and escalate the violence by turning it against citizens. After all, the streets do not belong to the police.



Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was accused of inciting violence when she remarked that as the police protected protestors so they could demonstrate they also gave room to people who wish to destroy things. She was not saying that the police allowed or encouraged violence; she was saying that in doing one (protecting protestors) you may also do the other (enable “thugs”). Yet it could be argued that she should have said exactly what she did not say, namely, that citizens (not thugs) who take to the streets to enact their democratic political rights to counter racial violence and oppression ought to be left alone. If things turn ugly, then that will be addressed in the aftermath. That would be a democratic way of doing things. It may be an expensive way, but unlike national security, how can a price be placed on democracy? How can we not pay whatever it costs? Nonviolent protest, its noble tradition and historical results notwithstanding, often comes at an intolerably high price, even when it succeeds, to certain minority constituencies in democracy. What’s more, contrary to what many would like to profess, democratic violence can and does produce democratic results, starting with the founding of this country. (A resort to arms in the name of rights can also produce undemocratic results, of course. Witness the case of Cliven Bundy who, in faux republican spirit, effectively deployed weapons to fend off the Bureau of Land Management. The government retreated. It did not escalate the conflict and employ its overwhelming firepower—and he’s nothing more than a wealthy racist welfare cheat. But America did not lose its collective mind over Bundy, who, not coincidentally, is white and remains armed.)

The inspiring scene of young Baltimore citizens overwhelming police runs counter to the still shots that provided background as Wilmore mocked official calls for nonviolence. One of these photos showed Eric Garner in the process of being murdered in a police chokehold and another showed police officer Michael Slager standing over the soon-to-be corpse of Walter Scott, whom the officer had just shot (at) eight times.


Wilmore’s astute interpretations of violence in America contrasted sharply with the knee-jerk reactions of politicians and dominant media outlets. The president of the United States and the mayor of Baltimore denounced violence as inexcusable and unacceptable. Major talking heads did likewise and demanded that everyone join their chorus of condemnation. While not everyone meekly complied, few wanted to say a good word on behalf of a democratically inspired turn to violence.

Deray McKesson, a Baltimore community organizer, did his best (which was quite good) to counter the simple-minded moralizing of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the subject of violence, in part by exposing Blitzer’s vicious comparison of destruction of property to the execution of Freddie Gray and many other Baltimore citizens at the hands of police. In the end, however, the most McKesson would say about the practice of violence is, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.” But when is violence not only to be condoned but engaged by a democratic people? It’s not clear whether many Baltimore neighborhoods have been so decimated and abandoned by neoliberal capitalism and its compliant 
state apparatus that they more closely resemble Hobbes’s state of nature or open air prisons.




Violence by police, then, is not the only crime routinely committed against Baltimoreans. Neoliberalism, as Pope Francis remarked, kills. Residents of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods live close to fifteen years fewer than the national average and nearly twenty years fewer than residents in the wealthiest parts of the city. In many neighborhoods, they have life expectancies lower than people in Yemen, Syria, and North Korea. This is a violence that may be out of sight of white America, but it is not hidden or invisible. It endures not as the product of blindness but deliberate indifference and cruelty insofar as neoliberalism’s distribution of its spoils presumes that many will be sacrificed and wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer segments of society.

As a first step, what might counter the structural forms of violence waged against America’s inner cities? Upon Freddie Gray’s arrest and initial assault, Baltimore citizens recorded police officers dragging him to a police van. Remarkably Baltimore police made no effort to stop people from recording their brutalization of Gray (they felt immune). More remarkably, they were in no apparent hurry to finish what they were doing and had no fear that any citizen or citizens might intervene on Gray’s behalf. This presumption, no doubt shared by police across the United States, needs to be undone. Is this not what Huey Newton had in mind when the Black Panthers patrolled the streets of Oakland with their guns and law books? Is this (or something like it) what it will take to rein in America’s inherently rogue police forces? For example, does this democracy of ours want Baltimore citizens dominated, disenfranchised, and dispossessed because of race to exercise their newfound individual rights under the second amendment to the Constitution, courtesy of District of Columbia v. Heller, and bear arms to stop the killing? Martin Luther King remarked in 1968: “These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Must Baltimore’s downtrodden conclude that essential rights and freedoms have to be taken by force of arms by those systematically denied them in democracy?



How would a police force that knew it could not arbitrarily assault its forsaken citizens conduct itself in such a context? What if Baltimore cops knew that if they attempted to assault and murder a fellow citizen on city streets that they might have to worry not only about being recorded but also about immediate reprisal of some kind? Perhaps this would be a police force that would show citizens of all colors and classes due respect and prove capable of self-discipline and self-restraint—in part because it would need to be afraid of the very citizens they are sworn to protect should they abuse their power. Police must take violence directed at them by democratic citizens enraged at their oppression as a sign that they have failed and failed utterly in their mission. The larger order that arms and protects a militarized police and occupation force must also take it as a sign of abject failure. From the armed forces to local police, America’s democracy unduly invests in its military capabilities, sure signs of fear and weakness. Instead of investing in guns the country should try investing in its people, its infrastructure, its cities, and its nonmilitary institutions. The violence we need to redress with all our resources is to be found right here at home.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Executions: Theirs and Ours

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious AgeElisabeth Buell is an Art History major at the University of Rhode Island.

There is something about decapitation that catches the world’s attention. In the last few months a number of persons from countries around the world—including journalists and humanitarian activistswere beheaded by representatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Leaders from many nations have condemned these acts as “barbaric.” A revealing choice of words. In the original Greek it meant all those who were not Greek. It came to be a general term of abuse applied to many outsiders and even to insiders who challenged the status quo. Today, however, no one has asked why this particular form of brutality is especially repellant. Perhaps its moral turpitude lies in its being their preferred form of violence rather than ours. Nor have Western spokesmen acknowledged that decapitation did not begin with ISIL. The focusthough justifiedon these brutal executions only makes it easier for the US and its allies to persist in their own particular form of violence, thereby aiding ISIL’s recruiting drives.



To British Prime Minister David Cameron, "[t]he murder of David Haines is an act of pure evil. My heart goes out to his family who have shown extraordinary courage and fortitude. We will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice, however long it takes."

To term this act a pure evil is to suggest that it has appeared out of the blue, without history, motive, or background that might give it meaning or increase its likelihood. Yet the Judaic-Christian tradition, to which leaders like Cameron appeal, is often ambivalent on the subject of decapitation.  In one of the most famous oil on canvas works from the Baroque period, Judith Decapitating Holofernes (c.1620), Artemesia Gentileschi depicts the dramatic moment from the book of Judith in the Old Testament Apocrypha when Judith, with the aid of her maidservant Abra, saves the Jewish people from annihilation by decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes.  The artist focuses on the most dramatic and bloody moment in Judith’s biblical narrative. In addition, as feminist art historian Mary Garrard points out, her depiction of Judith and Abra with powerful and assertive hands unveils Judith as capable of the same agency and action in the world as is attributed to men. Both artistic decisions were upsetting in her era and the painting to this day retains its ability to shock and to empower women in desperate circumstances.


One question Judith leads me to ask is whether ISIL’s decapitations are a response to the genocidal impulses of the US and its allies? We can hear some readers protesting that Jihadi John, the most prominent ISIL executioner, or other ISIL executioners, are no Judiths.  French president François Hollande termed one beheading “cowardly” and “cruel,” He then went on to confirm that airstrikes would continue against ISIL in Iraq. These airstrikes, however, have never and probably never can achieve the precision promised. How great is the moral distance between intentional murder and use of a technology that one knows or should know will kill many innocent bystanders? Airstrikes, drones, not to mention sanctions, have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraq men, women, and children. “Precision airstrikes” is about as much as a misnomer as “humane executions.” Often directed by manned or unmanned aircraft miles above ground, these strikes hardly seem courageous. Are the arms and legs of a wedding party scattered about by bombs from the sky or slow death from starvation less horrific than an ISIL decapitation? Artemesia’s rendering of Holofernes pictures her as being sprinkled with the blood of her victim, suggesting to us that even the most righteous resistance leaves some blood on the hands of the agent. That possibility seems entirely absent in the rhetoric and practice of today’s anti-terror warriors, who operate within hermetically sealed capsules thousands of miles from the carnage they inflict.



That ISIL has chosen to mete out the death penalty, often without anything remotely resembling a fair trial, surely merits condemnation. Yet once again, who is the US to raise this objection? The US has a sorry history of lynching to which it has never owned up. And today it continues a war of criminalization—and executions-- against minorities, who continue to be exploited within the US judicial system.  In the international context, Cameron’s and Obama’s self-righteous tirades hide the West’s sanctioning of torture, authorized up to the highest levels of government.



That state governments here in the US do not make a public spectacle of executions is also—pardon the phrasea double-edged sword. Former UK Security Minister Alan West said that Jihadi John is a "dead man walking" who will be "hunted down like Osama Bin-Laden."  West’s reference to dead man walking reminds us not only of the life many US convicts live on death row but also of the tortured death many may face as states now wrestle with the formulation of the lethal cocktails to be administered behind closed walls. Public execution may have served at least one purpose, exposing the brutality of capital punishment in all its manifestations.

Monday, April 27, 2015

In this corner...

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Not long after Michael Eric Dyson’s assassination attempt on the personal and professional lives of Cornel West, the American public learned that yet another Obama drone strike had gone awry and killed innocents—this time an American and an Italian citizen each held hostage by al-Qaeda. Obama quickly assumed full responsibility (the mantra of politicians everywhere that allows them to do nothing) for the mistake and expressed the requisite amount of anguish before a sympathetic national news corps that always already privileges the president’s sacred duty to protect American national security despite the collateral damage that accompanies it. As with previous drone attacks gone right and wrong, the consternation generated by this all too deadly assault shall pass quickly.


What links drones to Michael Eric Dyson? While it might look like Dyson and West have suffered a very public end to a private relationship, Dyson’s prolix diatribe against West is first and foremost a political act with a political ambition. Yes, Dyson tries to expose, humiliate, and demean West, even calling on Leon Wieseltier and Lawrence Summers, among others, to assist him, but his principal purpose is to silence him. Assume that West may not produce the thrilling academic and scholarly volumes that he did earlier in his career, and that he may have triggered his own fall from the mountaintop of intellectual success thanks in part to a taste for celebrity and riches. Why does Dyson devote thousands upon thousands of words to reiterate supposedly self-evident career truths?


Dyson’s interminable assault on West confirms instead the powerful presence West has created for himself as a prophetic public intellectual willing to risk his good name and devote much of his life to, among other things, calling to account the president of the United States for his political projects, especially his misdeeds, including high crimes and misdemeanors. The Republican Party routinely assails Obama for his Constitutional depredations, but their attacks reflect a concerted campaign to destroy him that followed his election in 2008 and do not depend on what the president actually does. To the GOP, Obama is by definition illegitimate. West, on the other hand, offers a substantive critique of Obama’s policies that hits home and hits hard, which is precisely why Michael Eric Dyson does his particular brand of dirty work.


Thus, Dyson’s essay needs to be taken seriously. It needs to be taken seriously because the silencing strategy he proposes relies not just on Cornel West’s destruction, a cautionary tale to all oppositional political actors, but also because Dyson articulates what he takes to be a model for responsible political criticism—in this case regarding the president of the United States. Dyson’s approach to civic political discourse mimics self-proclaimed patriots who insist that participation depends on certain conditions of eligibility, conditions that work to defuse and defang criticism before it can begin. This makes Dyson not just dangerous but insidiously dangerous. In short, you must prove yourself worthy of participation before you are allowed to speak (critically) by proclaiming a prior love and fealty, whether to country or a political figure.
Dyson shares what he calls a “three-part formula for discussing Obama before black audiences” (there is no reason to believe Dyson would recommend anything significantly different in front of Democratic or progressive audiences). You must “start” with an expression of “love for the man” and take “pride in his epic achievement.” This must be followed by a recitation of the enmity Obama has faced from Republican and right-wing opposition. You must also never forget that Obama is a politician, and a Democratic politician to boot, which means he is subject to “the demands of his profession.”  This reality informs many of his actions, which may disappoint some of his supporters but only because so much lies beyond his ability to influence or control and thus his responsibility. Finally, you can identify the mistakes he has made and the failures he has experienced.  But now it can be done safely, properly. For Dyson, this means that he understands that “Obama the president is Pharaoh, not Moses: a politician, not a liberator.” Despite “the Obama administration’s expectation of unqualified support,” Dyson can offer praise where possible, criticism where needed, which differentiates him from West who indulges “black or white views.” Dyson, it seems, takes risks.

With this model in hand, Dyson repeatedly degrades and devalues West’s political interventions, especially those directed at Obama. Deploying a heavy-handed psychological reductionism, he renders them nothing more than expressions of West’s frustrated personal ambitions and sense of betrayal at Obama’s hands. Thus West “riffs and rants”; he “inveighs, stampedes, and kvetches”; he “harangues.” West is full of “rage” and “nastiness” and resorts to “extravagant excoriations.” His views are “scurrilous.” He is waging “war on Obama.”

If so, you might expect Dyson to offer a full-throated defense of Obama and answer West’s accusations and criticisms. He does not. He does compare West and Obama and, not surprisingly, Obama prevails in the competition. While West supposedly prefers to counter a destructive market economy with talk of alternative values, Obama is “more practical” and prefers Pell grants, stimulus money, tax credits for the poor, unemployment benefits, and food stamps, all of which helps blacks (and others). Yet this seems to be the best that Dyson’s Pharaoh has to offer. While these practical measures do matter greatly and Obama, at least domestically, is superior to any potential Republican president, any Democrat in his position would have pursued them as well. More importantly, Dyson ignores many, if not most, of the critiques that West delivers.
Of course, Dyson doesn’t really want to talk politics. If he did he’d have to discuss, among other things, not just Obama’s neoliberal credentials but Obama’s national security predilections. West has repeatedly accused Obama of war crimes associated with his drone campaign in the global war on terror. Hundreds of innocents have been killed thanks to Obama’s orders. These might be considered unintended consequences by the president and his co-conspirators, but when you pursue a policy knowing that it will inevitably kill—again and again—scores of innocents, it can no longer be considered unintentional. It is, rather, the price you are willing to pay—or more precisely, the price that you are more than willing to make others pay in the name of keeping America safe. Obama has also ordered the assassination of American citizens on his own (alleged) authority, converting himself into judge, jury, and executioner. Obama has deployed America’s war-making machine across the globe, perhaps most famously in Libya and now Syria and Iraq, without Constitutional mandate, a development that no doubt pleases theorists of the unitary executive such as John Yoo and Dick Cheney. Obama has presided over a stunning expansion of the national surveillance state and allowed his officials to lie about it to Congress without repercussion. He has dismissed the notion of Edward Snowden as a patriot and driven him into exile despite Snowden’s inestimable service to American democracy and the cause of freedom. This brutal treatment of an American citizen mimics Obama’s extreme and unprecedented pursuit of whistle blowers who reveal the security state’s criminal misdeeds against democracy—unless you happen to be a well-connected former general and a buddy of the president. The list of what Dyson euphemistically calls Obama’s “missteps and failures” could go on and on.


This is where we get to the heart of the difference between West and Dyson. West, according to Dyson, insists that he does “not respect the brother [Obama] at all.” This seems to be West’s way of saying that democratic politics, critical thinking, principled opposition, and unflinching resistance, if taken seriously, may entail difficult judgments that anger, antagonize, and alienate those subject to them. Dyson, on the other hand, continues to love and respect Obama, though it’s difficult to imagine what a convincing argument for respect from a critically-minded academic and ordained minister with commitments to democracy and life would look like at this point in Obama’s presidency.
It seems fitting, then, to ask Dyson if Obama could do anything to forfeit that respect. Obama once remarked in relation to the drone program he personally oversees that he is “really good at killing people.” He is not. Either way, Obama has much blood on his hands, much gratuitous blood, and much innocent blood. This does not necessarily make him unique among American presidents, but he is making his own distinct contributions to the exercise of sovereign violence, thereby exacerbating the practice. Democracy is Obama’s other great casualty. Again, this does not necessarily make him unique among American presidents, but he is making his own distinct contributions to subverting the Constitution, thereby unduly accelerating undemocratic trajectories. Republicans would no doubt be even more extreme, but it is this dismal record that has led West to wage an unrelenting public campaign of political criticism against the president of the United States. Dyson, however, prefers to pillory West for being a “freelancing, itinerant, nonordained, self-anointed prophet [who] has only to answer to himself.” For these characteristics of West I am profoundly grateful and give thanks. The world needs more freelance intellectuals on the left, not fewer—which is why Michael Eric Dyson would like to discredit and marginalize one of the more prominent ones we have.


Nevertheless, while West excels at revealing democracy’s inherent relationship to and reliance on violence in many forms, the nonviolent resistance he offers in response may no longer suffice on its own. It may be time for democratic activists to rethink their relationship to violence in the name of the democracy being destroyed right in front of us. This, too, has been part of the democratic tradition (though here Dyson and West might prefer to jointly disavow it).