EXCERPT FROM Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout BY LYNN MIE ITAGAKI: Lives That Matter
Written by LYNN MIE ITAGAKI
You’re just not walking right. —Rubén Martínez
Although the specific details of the 1992 Los Angeles Crisis recede from our collective memory, the same clusters of meaning and analyses emerge again and again. We are still fighting the civility wars. We continue to have public conversations over right and wrong behaviors: how walking in the middle of the street or walking around middle class neighborhoods late at night with the hood of a sweatshirt up makes some of us into criminals and justifies some of our deaths. Or how being undocumented, mentally disabled, intoxicated, or just plain unlucky might also justify the lethal force used against some of us. The right to equal protection from the police hinges on civility. Presumed incivility thus justifies the denial of civil, political, and human rights. These frameworks of rights and protections are often withheld from people of color and people who might also be multiply identified as transgender, queer, poor, homeless, immigrant, and disabled. In the courts, in the media, and on the streets, we are told that this denial is due to our own deficiencies, the lack of civility in our behaviors. This excuse of our bad choices masks what I call earlier in Paul Beatty’s novel The White Boy Shuffle the biologization of civility or civility as an inheritable trait, which is largely impossible in our very racialized existence. We cannot but be uncivil.
Race shaming, much like “slut shaming,” blames the victim. It not only puts the survivors or victims on trial for their behaviors, but it ridicules those who would protest the violence of the crimes themselves by publicly humiliating the survivor-victims and their supporters. This form of incivility attempts to keep people from asserting their rights, to hound them into silence, to diminish their claims on the state. The moral outrage that counters the moral outrage is a competing discourse of who belongs to the political community as a legitimate voice. Such an example of race shaming can be seen in relation to the stories and narratives constructed after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
One of the many moments that sparked the anger and frustrations of Ferguson residents and national audiences was how Brown’s body was left for four hours on a hot summer street. Residents of the Missouri suburb speculated that his body was left as a warning to this largely Black neighborhood and community, the hundreds who saw and photographed his decomposing body, and the millions who viewed the pictures through news and social media. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch explained the delays and mistiming on the part of the police, the investigative unit, and the coroner in moving Brown’s body out of public view, but an African American county official voiced the racial indignation felt about the treatment of his body: “You’ll never make anyone black believe that a white kid would have laid in the street for four hours” (Hunn and Bell). Critics interpret the treatment of Brown’s body as both the devaluation of Black lives and a violation of human rights. Esquire’s Charles Pierce argues that this kind of public display of bodies that have been tortured, mutilated, and killed occurs in countries with dictators and warlords. That this horrible spectacle occurred in the United States holds a mirror up to a country that perceives itself as the beacon of democracy in which its citizens enjoy freedom from fear.
While the grand jury deliberated whether to indict Brown’s killer in November 2014, Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the United Nations Committee against Torture, presenting a report written by legal experts that identified patterns of excessive police use of lethal force against Black men and women in the United States. In response to their UN testimony, Brown’s parents faced a barrage of criticism from the U.S. press and social media outlets. I look at two instances of race shaming in this slew of criticism and how tacit assessments of civility justified a variety of incivilities. The first instance appeared as a largely unverified news story, “UN Dismisses Michael Brown Case: ‘We Will Not Be Intervening in the Matter,’” in the online newspaper National Report. Circulating virally and erroneously believed accurate by thousands of social media commenters, it was subsequently re-blogged and linked in numerous comments responding to other online news stories and opinion pieces on Michael Brown’s death and the protests in Ferguson.
This report claimed to cover the reactions of UN officials to McSpadden and Brown Sr.’s testimony and quoted a UN “chair member” who assailed the “sense of entitlement these people displayed,” referring to Michael Brown’s parents, and implied that their concerns did not merit a human rights inquiry: “We deal with legitimate and widespread instances of human rights violations, and frankly the issues presented to us here are not even a blip on our radar” (quoted in Agni). This alleged spokesperson explains the committee’s blanket exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson: “after reviewing all the evidence that the officer in question committed absolutely no wrong doing. .. . My colleagues and I went over the surveillance footage, as well as other evidence documented in the case, and we believe that Michael Brown is indeed guilty of the acts of which he is being charged” (quoted in Agni). Online fact-checking sites debunk the claims made in the ostensible news article and question the credentials of the UN spokesperson, but this parodic approximation of the UN’s assessment and procedures is written in a authoritative style noticeably different from the carefully worded press releases of the UN Special Rapporteurs, who “voiced deep concern” and “urge[d]” the U.S. government to examine the violent deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the local police (“Legitimate Concerns”). The unverified UN spokesperson disciplined Brown’s parents for their allegedly illegitimate actions and behaviors and, most disconcertingly, thousands eagerly linked these sentiments as factual support.
A brief opinion piece for the conservative journal National Review that appeared later the same month echoes similar sentiments as the unverified sources in the National Report. In it, conservative columnist Ian Tuttle mocks Brown’s parents for their collaboration with activist organizations and for going outside the U.S. judicial system to the United Nations. The columnist complains that, despite being “the involuntary targets of the myriad influence-peddlers exploiting events in Ferguson,” McSpadden and Brown Sr. are not currying “any favors with this latest ploy” (Tuttle). The article further criticizes what Tuttle perceives as their rejection of the U.S. criminal justice system: “that the Brown family would turn away from the American judicial system— which, for its many flaws, is as fair as any there has ever been.” The word choice is revealing: “favors” implies that neither Brown’s parents, nor their dead son, are equally rights-bearing subjects, but those in an extralegal economy that hierarchizes and judges their civil behaviors in order to accord value to their claim of the murder of their son. Both articles criticize the deep skepticism held by many communities of color that U.S. law can protect their rights and are offended by McSpadden and Brown Sr.’s internationally publicized attack on U.S. exceptionalism that these critics feel the UN testimony of Brown’s parents represents. Human rights violations, they imply, cannot exist in a nation with as fair and sophisticated a justice system as the United States.
The UN testimony of Brown’s parents and these two articles expose a divided nation, not along Black–White lines or the two racially divided Americas of the 1968 Kerner Commission report after the urban unrest of the 1960s, but between those who believe the U.S. system is “as fair as any there has ever been” and those who believe otherwise. For the latter their life experiences and collective histories testify to the debilitating injustice of the system’s “many flaws” that have harmed entire communities. This division transcends Black–White conflicts. This trust or distrust of the state is manifested in assessments of Michael Brown’s civility that justify or refute the reasons for his death: Which criminal behaviors and terrorizing actions are attributed to which bodies, civilian or police officer, Black or White? When Brown turned toward the police car after the altercation, did he mean to surrender to or threaten Wilson? Supporters of excessive use of force thought Brown’s hands were up; his detractors argued that he was lunging toward Wilson. Who receives the benefit of the doubt?
Both pieces reveal uneasiness with international scrutiny and the comparison of U.S. human rights violations to those in other countries such as Brazil and North Korea. Even in the unverified news report, Brown’s legitimacy as a human rights subject is denied because U.S. violations are “not as bad” as past and present totalitarian regimes. Largely ignoring the range of concerns that Brown’s parents presented to the UN—from alleviating the disproportionate harassment and incarceration of Black and Brown people to establishing a national database of cases of police brutality— the alleged UN spokesperson in the National article shames them for airing their concerns about anti-Black patterns of police brutality. By extension, both articles shame people of color and other vulnerable speakers for talking about issues that affect themselves and those who share the brutality they experience as racialized subjects. Ironically, this logic of U.S. exceptionalism that these supporters and their fans demand—minimizing the impact and number of U.S. human rights violations—is denied to Michael Brown and his transgressions: there are worse offenses than walking in the middle of the residential street, obstructing traffic, that do not merit immediate death; there are other, less lethal forms of force than the multiple gunshots that wounded and killed Brown.
Like any other complainant, Brown’s parents are allowed to file a complaint and testify in front of a world organization. For the authors of these articles and their myriad supporters, the claim for justice for Brown’s death is diminished by his parents’ behaviors, which allegedly reveal their lesser intellects, character, and morality: they are unthinking puppets serving the interests of “myriad influence-peddlers” (Tuttle) and outside agitators. These specific criticisms that have delegitimized the protests in Ferguson are also those that have patronizingly denied Black political autonomy since the beginning of Black freedom struggles. These criticisms furthermore suggest that not only is Brown’s parents’ definition of justice self-serving, but that their actions subvert U.S. sovereignty and undermine its global reputation for the fairness of its legal system by appealing to an inferior extranational governing body. They and their uncivil behaviors—their illegitimate claims and for bypassing the U.S. legal system—do not belong.
Coalition, Solidarity, Alliance
Just as accusations of incivility met Brown’s memorials and protests against state violence, so too do these accusations discredit activists by framing their behaviors as uncivil. And in this case, subverting what the protesters are saying with an emphasis on how they say it has been a powerfully effective strategy to diminish their claims. In this logic uncivil behaviors do not deserve consideration; uncivil bodies do not merit protection. Moreover, one or one’s group must be deemed civil to earn racial equality or antiracist efforts. The question of civility has caused tension among allies. New coalitions are forming around combating anti-Black violence and police brutality that include new activist allies such as Christian college students and political conservatives concerned about police surveillance and violations of civil liberties. But these broad-based networks have activated new manifestations of racial privilege, White supremacy, and anti-Black sentiment even among allies. The behind-the-scenes controversy over the use and purpose of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement brings together the arguments of this book, organized under the counterdiscourse of civility.
The #BlackLivesMatter Movement arose in protest of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his killer a year later. It has continued to coordinate activism around police brutality and murders of Black people through organizing protests in Ferguson, keeping anti-Black violence a national issue and serving as a source of information. The success of this influential online activist movement has generated numerous spinoff organizations and slogans, touting interests and often goals that have countered the movement’s mission. Because this appropriation is occurring with such regularity, the founders of #BlackLivesMatter have felt the need to remind supporters and detractors alike of the movement’s continuing goals and of their expectations for groups claiming their solidarity and alliances with the movement. In her online essay “A Herstory of the #Black LivesMatter Movement,” one of its founders, Alicia Garza, demands recognition for the Black feminist and queer origins of this powerful organizing slogan and solidarity, not appropriation, from the many groups that want to ally themselves with the movement. Garza describes how these groups might seemingly support #BlackLivesMatter through their riffs on the name, the most contentious and widespread having been “All Lives Matter.” However, in their unattributed appropriation and exploitation of Black queer women’s and people of color’s antiracist innovations and work, the self-professed good intentions of these groups have proved misguided at best, and racist, sexist, and queerphobic at their worst: “When you drop ‘Black’ from the equation of whose lives matter, and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy. And consider whether or not when dropping the Black you are, intentionally or unintentionally, erasing Black folks from the conversation or homogenizing very different experiences” (Garza). Garza reminds her readers that intersectionality is not intersectionality if one uses the multiple axes of this analytic tool not as opportunities for coalition but for lines of flight from Blackness. The erasure of Black lives and experiences in the United States is a human rights concern.
The movement’s founders demand recognition of Blackness at the center of calls for justice and the singular focus of energies and resources of their members, and they point to the many ways in which their ostensible allies and supporters shift themselves to the center and crowd out the mission of supporting and sustaining Black lives: “It is appropriate and necessary to have strategy and action centered around Blackness without other non-Black communities of color, or White folks for that matter, needing to find a place and a way to center themselves within it” (Garza). The movement argues for a heavily qualified inclusion that has been loudly criticized by self-professed aspiring allies. To refuse inclusivity is to risk accusations of incivility. However, the founders counter that to risk inclusivity is to risk appropriation and even the
reinstantiation of anti-Black agendas that marginalize Black issues once again. The founders have to fend off accusations of multidiscrimination because of their unwavering focus on Black lives instead of everyone’s. While “All Lives Matter” becomes a way to incorporate distinctly non-Black experiences, this ostensible inclusion weakens already thin resources specifically supporting Black lives and can even promote goals and agendas that can and have embodied anti-Black racism. Such abstractions that purport to encompass all of humanity have historically codified the most pernicious discriminations against women and people of color in “we the people,” and while some laws have changed, the same patterns of White supremacy and heteropatriarchy continue: the media attention on White suffering, the celebration of middle-class norms, and the devaluation of Black experiences. The external demands for inclusion and recognition operate in what I identify as a characteristic of the post–civil rights era in Héctor Tobar’s novel The Tattooed Soldier, the logic of racial equilibrium or the belief that the same action or behavior is interpreted the same regardless of who is the agent. Thus, because African Americans have faced exclusion and segregation in the past, they are expected to be inclusive and integrationist in all aspects of their lives. This kind of reciprocity is believed to be a form of civility; denying reciprocity is couched as incivility, rather than as a necessary political strategy for a movement with limited resources and whose members are under imminent physical threat.
The founders exhort their readers and supporters to recognize the political and affective ties that bind them to centering Black lives and concerns. To this end, the founders of #BlackLivesMatter invoke the family, “our family”: “When Black people cry out in defense of our lives, which are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state, we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities [sic] with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it” (Garza). Much like Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s documentary Sa-I-Gu, the founders exhort their supporters to create a transracial family of feeling not based in the sentimental heterosexual nuclear family but instead on activist ties combating anti-Black racism. The founders assert Michael Brown’s death, among many others, as a “legitimate human rights violation” against a wide swath of the U.S. body politic that condemns his life and behaviors before his death as well as his parents’ efforts to claim his death worthy of redress and justice. Rejecting his parents’ claims by marking Brown an undeserving victim, he then cannot represent the universality and immanence of international human rights discourse. This logic inversely parallels how #BlackLivesMatter is in danger of being appropriated for non-Black exclusivity under the guise of an expansive and “universal” humanism.
Interracial solidarity recognizes the racist hierarchy in which others are treated as if they were Black, stripped of their civility and humanity. Expressions of solidarity are what I refer to in my discussions of Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight as performances of proximity, and Smith’s ethical demands support the call for Black Lives Matter no matter one’s positionality. Smith exhorts her audiences to begin with the other to return to the self, but a self that is changed through walking “in the speech of another” (Fires, xxvii). We should not deploy identity as if it were fixed, but instead engage in the continual recursive cycle of other-directed engagement and self-interrogation. The ethics of comparative racialization necessitates these changes and exchanges between and among these racial identities. We cannot continue to pretend that identities are stable and fixed so as to refuse to acknowledge the value of other identities in shaping our own: that our privileges and oppressions are related to those of others.
We live this racial disaster daily, whether or not we acknowledge it, whether or not we think it affects others who look, think, and behave like us. In our times of interracial crisis, we must find new ways to counter the continual denial of the civil, political, and human rights of others since it is ultimately a denial of our own. We rehearse old ways of racist knowing and must struggle for an antiracist becoming. These struggles that begin with uncivil bodies and behaviors and demand justice must motivate any appeal for civility.
Excerpt from the epilogue, “Lives That Matter,” from Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout by Lynn Mie Itagaki appears courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. www.upress.umn.edu
Lynn Mie Itagaki is assistant professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and program coordinator in Asian American studies at The Ohio State University.
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