July 18, 2014, was the latest in a series of police brutality cases that end with the death of the person targeted by the police. Eric Garner was a 43-year-old African-American man from Staten Island. The confrontation he had with the police, which led to his death by suffocation, was filmed by an onlooker, and the link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-5UY9I1EbU
The video shows very clearly that there was nothing that justified any use of force by the police, let alone excessive force. One hears Garner arguing with the police, saying he has done nothing wrong and wants to be left alone. Suddenly a few police officers are on top of him; he soon cries, “I can’t breathe!,” but they continue holding him to the ground, one officer using a choke-hold that kills Garner. At the end of the deadly confrontation, there are about ten officers at the scene, and some of them seem to be only concerned with pushing onlookers away.
In my forthcoming book, Humanity and the Enemy, I deal extensively with the issue of police brutality in New York City and elsewhere. I see this phenomenon, this social pathology, as an expression of a basic logic of violence that defines our thinking and living. There is an enemy that must be controlled, arrested, restrained, beaten, and annihilated. This fundamental and widely accepted structure of violence engenders not only the countless cases of police brutality, but also global violence, political domination, oppression, and war. In another post, I will consider in this sense the continuous and current onslaught of the Palestinians of Gaza by Israel. What is important to note is that all these cases are generated by the same basic structure. That’s the ontology and genealogy of our culture of violence. They are, however, made possible by the logic of impunity. Impunity is where violence and the law meet again. I say “again” because – though always inextricably linked – the law has the capacity of nominally distancing itself from the violence that generates and sustains it and of thus taking on the appearance of legitimacy that is usually attributed to it, recognized in it. But violence remains the substance of the law as command – for instance, the commanding voice of the police officer, and so on. Impunity is a stronger, though aberrant, form of legitimacy. When something cannot be done with simple legitimacy, it is done anyway, openly using violence, and this is impunity. It is the most visible form of sovereignty: the sovereign exception. To be clear, I am not saying that there is any true legitimacy to sovereign power. However, a distinction must be made: What we call legitimacy is the regular exercise of this power; when its illegitimacy can no longer be denied, we have recourse to impunity. In other words, the exercise of power, of the law as command, is always illegitimate. When it is so in a ‘weak’ and regular way, it looks as if it were legitimate; when, because of an exception, it loses that appearance and its illegitimacy becomes visibly clear, it goes back to its violent and bloody origin and hides itself behind the specter of impunity.
When we analyze the video of the killing of Eric Garner, we very clearly see this shift from the appearance of legitimacy to total illegitimacy and thus violence and impunity. This is of course true of all cases of police brutality. The police force (and in particular in this case, the NYPD) acts as if they owned life. Of course, they don’t. But that doesn’t matter. This is indeed one of the most important biopolitical questions of our time, namely, the gap between a person’s experience of one’s own life and the fact that this life is ‘owned’ by a system that can take it back or annihilate it at any time. The gap between one’s experience and the oppressive power of the system is very clear in the video under examination. Eric Garner’s words count nothing as far as those thoughtless police officers are concerned. Both when he argues that he has done nothing wrong and wants to be left alone and when he later cries, “I can’t breathe!,” his experience –and thus his dignity—has already been suspended and actually neutralized by the imbecile attitude of the police officers. All that remains is pure violence and naked life.