Transgressive Substances, Transmogrification and the Tragedy of Michael Brown

Criminality cannot account for what Michael Brown's 'lawful killer' describes. Only monstrosity can.

My Blackness is not a Weapon

The [police] chief was informed that a hitherto inoffensive negro was running amok in a cocaine frenzy … Being fully aware of the respect the negro has for brass buttons, the officer went single-handed to the negro’s house for the purpose of arresting him. … The officer … informed him quietly that he was under arrest … . In reply the crazed negro drew a long knife, grappled with the officer and slashed him across the shoulder.

Knowing that he must kill the man or be killed himself, the chief drew his revolver, placed the muzzle over the negro’s heart and fired … But the shot did not even stagger the man. A second shot that … entered the chest, had just as little effect in stopping the negro or checking his crazed attack. So he [the police chief] saved his ammunition and “finished the man with his club.”

The New York Times.1

In refusing to indict Officer Darren Wilson, the law verified a testimony which offered naked acknowledgement of the debt owed by the juridical to the mythical. Though purportedly rational—secular modern law is presumed as constituted through a relegation of the mythical to a pre-modern past—Darren Wilson’s account of the events of August 9, 2014, betrays the persistence of the supernatural within modern legality. However, Wilson’s testimony did not cause any disturbance in the legal order. For in his attempt to explain why he shot dead the unarmed 18 year-old Michael Brown, Wilson sought recourse to a tale that is both fantastical and familiar to modern law: the transmogrification of the racial subaltern into a monstrosity.

The irrelevant contestation over whether Brown was a ‘college-bound gentle giant‘ or ‘no angel’ should be circumvented, for the ensuing debate about what type of person Brown was obscures the fact that by the conclusion of Wilson’s testimony Brown is no longer meant to resembles a person.

His description of Brown as ‘a demon’ has stood out to many observers.2 This was not an unfortunate turn of phrase but a crystallised instance of the transmogrification that underpinned Wilson’s entire defence.  For if we accept Wilson’s explanation, as the law now says we must, then we accept that on that day in August, Wilson encountered neither a sweet-natured teenager nor a juvenile delinquent. Criminality cannot account for what Wilson describes. Only monstrosity can.

Wilson saw in Brown a figure lacking the capacity for mutual recognition shared by humans: “The face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.3 The noises Brown made, “a grunting, like aggravated sound,”indicate that Wilson was in the presence of the monster.4 The absurd physical strength Wilson awards Brown—“I felt like a five year old holding hulk hoganbetrays an abnormality unleashed.5 By the end, this apparition almost obtains invincibility in Wilson’s eyes. It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.6 Wilson is left with no other choice but to slay the monster.

Yet Wilson’s unabashed references to myths rendering the racial subaltern proximate to the bestial still required a further element to be fully intelligible. Where is the moment of metamorphosis captured? The racial subaltern is not always monstrous, so what is it that can provoke this dimension into being? The addition of drugs, rational modernity’s preeminent transgressive substances, completes the narrative.

Forty-Four times Michael Brown’s use of marijuana was raised to the grand jury. The toxicology report showed that Brown had 12 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in his system. Whether he had used the drug at all on the 9th of August is far from a settled fact.

Still, the Jury were informed on the final day of the hearing that Brown’s marijuana use could have “caused a loss of perception of space and time and there was also the possibility of hallucinations.”7 The inference suggested was one that had been drawn before, and the appearance of the monster explicable. There are antecedents which verify monstrous ramifications that result from the combination of transgressive substances and transgressive peoples. The epigraph I employed to introduce this post testifies to the atmosphere in which the American drug prohibition experiment was born, an era in which the transmogrifying effect of psychoactive drugs on the racial subaltern subject was considered axiomatic. News stories like the one above led police departments in the Jim Crow South to switch to .38 caliber revolvers, believing that cocaine made Blacks impervious to .32 caliber bullets.8

This transmogrification was invoked when the police had to justify the vicious assault on Rodney King in 1991. I thought that the suspect was under the influence of PCP,” Sgt. Stacey Koon testified. “In my mind, he had exhibited this Hulk-like strength which I had come to associate with PCP.9 King had not taken PCP.

This transmogrification was invoked when Darren Wilson shot dead Michael Brown in 2014.

That this myth should still have purchase in the public imagination even as the consensus on the drug war is evaporating gives credence to the argument that the jus bellum that followed drug prohibition was not so much a ‘war on drugs’ as it was a ‘war on monsters’. The monstrous, the pernicious by-product of the invention of the racial subaltern. The monstrous, whose vengeful appearance preoccupied the rational minds of civilised men. “The European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters,” said Satre.10 What he didn’t spy was the obsession that ‘man’ maintained the potential for slippage between the two dehumanizing categories. Foucault provides better guidance in describing the meaning of monsters in modernity: “The monster is transgression of natural limits, the transgression of classifications, of the table, and the law as a table. This is what is involved in monstrosity.”11

Guarding against manifest monstrosity has been the raison d’être of the drug war.

The consensus around drug prohibition is now fracturing at an exponential rate. Will the appeal to the transmogrifying racial subaltern also disappear with the drug war? That is a question that is yet to be answered. But if the events in Ferguson have shown anything, it is that justice will not come solely from a change in the status of substances but requires a change in the status of peoples. It will require the Mike Browns to be neither angel nor demon; neither slave nor monster, but human. Fanon called it a new humanism. This is the justice that is being demanded in Ferguson. Until it is realised, peace is impossible.

Kojo Koram is a PhD candidate, Birkbeck Law School, University of London.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. February 8, 1914. Williams, Edward Huntington; Negro Cocaine Fiends Are The New Southern Menace; The New York Times. February 8, 1914
  2. Grand Jury, Ferguson Police Shooting, Volume 5, p.225
  3. Grand Jury, Ferguson Police Shooting, Volume 5, p.228
  4. Grand Jury, Ferguson Police Shooting, Volume 5, p.227
  5. Grand Jury, Ferguson Police Shooting, Volume 5, p.212
  6. Grand Jury, Ferguson Police Shooting, Volume 5, p.228
  7. Grand Jury, Ferguson Police Shooting, Volume 24, p.63
  8. Drug Policy Alliance, How Did We Get Into This Mess? Race, Class and The History of U.S. Drug Policy
  9. New York Times, March 20, 1992 http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/20/us/sergeant-says-king-appeared-to-be-on-drugs.html
  10. Sartre, Jean-Paul; Preface to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (Penguin, 2001), p.22
  11. Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France 1974–1975 (Verso, First English Edition, 2003), p.63
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