Resist “Lawful” Police Killings: Answering the Call from Ferguson

by | 26 Nov 2014


Almost a year ago (January 15 to be exact) I wrote an article here in response to the Duggan Inquiry. I remember being struck by two things when reading the verdict: a pro­found con­fu­sion over how they could reach the de­cision that his killing was lawful as well as a com­plete lack of surprise at their ver­dict. Fast forward ten months and I find myself once again experiencing the same bi-polar reaction of anger and shock alongside the surety that that in the US there would be no indictment for Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown on 9 August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

However, the reasons underlining today’s sense of anger and surety couldn’t possibly be further away from what we here in the UK experienced last January. In the Duggan case I argued that the ruling had less to do with the particularities of the case, and more to do with how the state constructs its sovereign identity through a politics of fear. This process was carried out through the retroactive construction of Mark Duggan as a hardened criminal, one of the worst in Europe, despite him never having been convicted of any crime.

While race was certainly a factor in Mark Duggan’s killing and the riots that followed, by the time an official inquiry into Duggan’s killing was launched, the police and media had already framed it within a different context. The police killing of Mark Duggan was framed within the context of gang crime and Duggan himself was cast as one of forty-eight “core members” of the Tottenham Man Dem (TMD) gang, a group the police said was involved in the supply of guns and Class A drugs. While Duggan’s family have launched judicial review of the inquest, for the general public the context has been shifted away from issues of general police repression to that of particular instances of gang related gun crime and drug trafficking. In this way the state was able to construct its sovereign identity in opposition to the hunted and dehumanized gangster.

Conversely, in the US it has become impossible to suppress the racial drama of “lawful” killings. While the commonly used figure from the MXGM study that in the US every twenty-eight hours a black person is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante has been contested, there can be little doubt that the rate of so-called lawful killings of black and brown people, predominately male and often unarmed, at the hands of the police appears to be a growing problem in the US — the latest victim being twelve-year old Tamir Rice, whose only crime appears to be being black and playing with a toy gun (The 911 responder twice asked whether the boy was black or white before dispatching officers). This brings the immanent threat of violence and death home to every person of colour in America. As Syeeta McFadden poignantly wrote:

The students I teach at a community college in Manhattan – freshmen, like Mike Brown would have been right now, returning home to his family for Thanksgiving break – are relatively conscious of this regularity, of this apparent normality.

The young people know about John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black man who died after an Ohio police officer shot him for carrying an unloaded BB rifle in the pet-food aisle of Walmart, whose mother misses her son and doesn’t understand why an Ohio grand jury did not indict the cops responsible for this death.

The young people know about Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black father of six who died after a New York police officer put him in an illegal chokehold, whose family awaits in tears of rage as a grand jury still has not indicted any of the cops responsible for that death.

They know about Darrien Hunt and Vonderrit Myers Jr, another unarmed teenager shot dead by a white law-enforcement officer with a gun. After this weekend, they know about 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 28-year-old Akai Gurley. They know about Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell; I am teaching them about Edmund Perry and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But do they know about Ezell Ford in Los Angeles or Marlon Horton in Chicago and all the black and brown bodies gunned down by cops every day since that August afternoon when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown after those 90 seconds on Canfield Drive? Does a grand jury of our supposed peers […] mean to say that if the cops are never wrong, they never shall experience any penalty or consequences for their errors, especially when they prove fatal? Or do we just expect this and that death, do we just embrace this failure of humanity?

Within this context the violence that followed the decision to not indict Darren Wilson, exceeding the level of violence that followed Michael Brown’s killing in August, should not have come as any surprise. In fact, both the city of Ferguson as well the state of Missouri anticipated it, prompting Gov. Jay Nixon to pre-emptively declare a state of emergency and deploy the National Guard.

To fully understand this situation it is helpful to turn to the work of Frantz Fanon. Fanon helped us to understand that in racist societies the oppressors maintain their control through violent repression of the citizenry by bringing the violence of colonialism and/or racism into the minds and homes of the oppressed. The development of revolutionary violence then is always proportional to the violence of the oppressor (Fanon, 2001, 29, 69). As such the heightened levels of violence were directly proportional to the heightened repression from an increasingly militarized police and National Guard. As such, for Fanon it is the dehumanizing violence of oppression that fosters the explosive drive towards revolutionary change.

Far from promoting violence, as many commentators have claimed, Fanon was diagnosing the role violence plays in resisting oppression. Fanon acknowledges that violence is cathartic for oppressed people, although he maintains a critical stance in his treatment of violence and stops short of a wholesale endorsement. It is important to remember that Fanon was always strategic in his calls to resist oppression and that beyond being a revolutionary, he was first and foremost a doctor. As such, to follow the example of Frantz Fanon at this important moment is to work towards the development of a long-term and sustainable strategy of resistance. In Michael Brown Sr.’s message calling for people to work together to create lasting change and to not let his son’s death be in vain, we can hear the call for a long-term and sustainable resistance being made. Now the onus to answer this call is on us.

As Fanon’s clinical work brought to light (2001, ch. 5), life within oppressive societies hurts everybody, the oppressors and the oppressed. As such, the imperative to resist an oppressive and militarized police force that is able to “lawfully” kill unarmed civilians must be answered from all segments of American society, regardless of any perceived difference. The exigency to answer the call to resistance issued from Ferguson is also felt here in the UK. As Mathew Ryder noted, the Duggan verdict set a dangerous precedent here in the UK. Mark Duggan’s killing may have been lawful because of the officer V53’s “honest but mistaken belief that he was more dangerous than he actually was”. That is to say that the killing of an unarmed black male here, just like in the US, can now be “legally” justified due to the racist assumption that black men are inherently dangerous and violent.

One opportunity to this call to resist is happening today. There will be a vigil in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors outside the US embassy, 26 November 2014 at 7pm.

As I argued last January, the state is constructing its sovereignty, conceptualized as the sovereign right to use lethal force, vis-à-vis a dehumanized internal and threatening “Other”. However, in the US the façade of the state only “lawfully” killing “gangsters” or other threatening criminals has fallen away. Now the only thing needed to be perceived as threatening and lawfully killed is skin colour. As the protests in Ferguson and across America graphically illustrate, this is being actively resisted in the US. However, the onus to resist this is also significant here in the UK to prevent the dangerous precedent set by the Duggan killing from metastasising.

Anthony Fara­melli is a PhD stu­dent at The Lon­don Gradu­ate School and part-​time lec­turer in Media and Cul­ture Stud­ies at King­ston University.


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