“Hey, come here for a minute.” Racism and Sovereign Violence

There are two versions of the events that led to the death of Michael Brown, the African American teenager killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. One is based on the account given to the grand jury by Dorian Johnson, the man who was with Brown when the incident happened and witnessed the killing. The other is based on the account given by Officer Wilson himself, who was not indicted on any charges.

I am not reviewing the two versions. I only want to point out that they mainly diverge in the description of the attitude, actions and language of both Officer Wilson and Michael Brown. Darren Wilson describes himself as extremely courteous and polite when he addresses the two men from within his police car and throughout the confrontation, and he describes Michael Brown as extremely abusive and violent, and indeed as a demon (not differently from the way George Zimmerman described Trayvon Martin.) However, Dorian Johnson narrates the events differently. I want to focus on the very first moments of their encounter and altercation, when, according to Johnson, Officer Wilson tells them, “Get the F on the sidewalk!” while, according to Wilson, he very politely says, “Hey guys, why don’t you walk on the sidewalk?” Still according to Wilson, it is Michael Brown who escalates the situation that leads to the confrontation and finally to his death. In fact, even assuming that Officer Wilson’s account were true –which is however impossible to believe—it is what he maintains he says immediately after the first exchange that I want to highlight here. In his account, he says, “Hey, come here for a minute.”

The sentence “Hey, come here for a minute” contains all the arrogance and abusiveness of sovereign violence. It is of course a perfect example of what Louis Althusser calls interpellation. It is, in fact, almost precisely the example given by Althusser: a police officer yelling to someone, “Hey, you there!” When Wilson gives the grand jury and the media what is most likely a totally false account, he is certainly not aware that even according to his own words he is admitting to participating in the system of original, historical and institutional violence that is sadly the only explanation for Michael Brown’s death. This is why Ferguson is on fire and demonstrations have been taking place in nearly one hundred cities across the United States – because this is not the isolated case of an abusive and overreacting police officer; it is rather an instance of the system of abuse characterizing the US as a police state.

I first want to note that the police don’t really have the right to address anyone in that fashion. I am not speaking legally, and I am here not interested in the technicalities of the law. I am speaking from an existential, ethical, and human point of view: the point of view of life. When a police officer says, “Hey, come here for a minute,” the abuse and aggression of police brutality have already begun. The meaning of that sentence is, “Your body doesn’t belong to you, and your life isn’t your life. As far as I am concerned, you are already subjected to my ruling, to the law, and now you have to show me that you understand that.” In truth, anyone has the right not to ‘go there for a minute.’ This ‘minute’ is the time during which your life is lost, the time of no time, the stoppage of time. It is also important to note that a police officer wouldn’t just address anyone that way. Darren Wilson was a white police officer addressing two African American men in Ferguson, Missouri –though that might have been in New York, or anywhere else in the US.  A white police officer believes that it is okay to tell an African American teenager, “Hey, come here for a minute.” What about dignity? The white police officer wouldn’t know what we were talking about –what we meant here by dignity.

This is my second notation. The US police state is a racist state. Frantz Fanon once noted that the “world has a racist structure.” The US, the monstrous offspring of racist Europe, shows that in a particularly strong way. Obviously, racism today doesn’t only mean white versus black and so on (though that dimension is of course eminently included in the above-mentioned structure), but it also means, more generally, a bio- and thanatopolitical approach, a genocidal approach, toward and against whatever is construed as difference –a difference first of all individuated in the fact of poverty, the war against the poor.  It is only people like former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani that may not get it and still say –as he did—that police violence against African Americans would stop if only they stopped killing one another. Such childish and racist logic, which is unfortunately very common, only reinforces (and tries to justify) the politics of death and the genocidal machinery of the state under the guise of security and…what is that word? legality. This is the meaning of racism today.

 

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