"We declare our right on this earth....... to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary" - Malcolm X.
"Black lives matter!" cried marchers as they flooded the streets and freeways of downtown Los Angeles, California over the course of two nights in November of 2014. Together they marched in protest of the recent announcement that Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson would not be charged for the deadly shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. As hundreds marched towards the LA County jails, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) went on ‘Tactical Alert', which is the controlled redistribution of all on-duty officers to remain deployed until further notice in order to have the necessary amount of officers needed for the adequate control of a major police incident.
Meanwhile, another group of demonstrators barricaded the 101 Freeway, halting traffic in civil disobedience as the LAPD Chief of Police, Charlie Beck, made a statement that morning regarding the arrests that occurred over the course of the two nights: "The Police Department of Los Angeles wants to facilitate genuine First Amendment activity, however we will not condone, nor will allow, individuals to trample the rights of others in pursuit of those First Amendment rights."
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The Los Angeles Times reported 183 protesters were held in police custody, from that number 167 protesters were arrested for "disturbing the peace."4 How should we understand the political actions of the Black Lives Matter protesters? Are they, as the LAPD suggests, simply seeking to exercise their existing First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly? Or might this framework of rights-exercising individuals fail to fully capture the political impact of the Black Lives Matter movement as a movement to gain access to the status of rights-bearers at all— a status long denied to Black Americans? The hundreds of protestors, arrested and held in police custody, were marching in objection to the failed indictment by the Ferguson grand jury; they marched in support of Michael Brown's family; and they marched against those protestors who were arrested the night before. Most importantly, however, these hundreds of protesters marched for justice and for peace with self-determination and self-possession integral to freedom.
In this paper, I propose that the above description of the Black Lives Matter protest depicts what Jacques Ranciere would deem a radical political moment: when the part that has ‘no part' (those voiceless, abject, and misrepresented Black bodies) takes part and sets the 'common stage' for politics to occur through coming together, forming a community— as equally speaking beings—in which they are able to articulate their claims of injustices and expose the fundamental wrong within the current social order. I argue that the United States still requires a movement, like the one described above, that disrupts the status quo of great racial inequality and imbued white supremacist patriarchy in institutional practices, in order to voice the most basic of claims: Black Lives Matter. Black bodies in the U.S. have been racialized through domination and abjection, i.e. that which is expelled from the individual and social body."
Through this notion of abjection, as a means to "protect" the social order from what is deemed "threatening" or "dangerous", Black bodies have become the object that re-constitutes white identity in a "post-racialized" American society. In order to better understand this phenomenon of the racialized, abject Black body, we must first lay down the theoretical foundation of what is meant by the abject and processes of abjection. Moreover, we must understand, historically, how these processes of abjection have manifested themselves in the formation of Black bodies and re- formation of white identity in America.
Sara Ahmed, in Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, describes the first moment of abjection as a risk to one's individual identity, which further re-constitutes the subject's identity from that which is considered Other; strange; and repulsive. This strange body, then becomes the abject, as best described by Ahmed quoting Kristeva: "The abject relates to what is revolting, to what threatens the boundaries of both thought and identity: 'The abject has only one quality of the object— that of being opposed to I.' " Therefore, the subject formation that takes place in the process of abjection renders certain bodies as objects— both strange and un-live-able.
Through abjection, the subject expels that which is undesirable; repulsive; and threatening from his or her individual body, leaving the Other body as abject, "At one level, the abject is a jettisoned object that is excluded, or cast out, from the and the process of domain of the thinking subject. The abject is expelled—like vomit - expulsion serves to establish the boundary line of the subject. At the same time, the abject holds an uncanny fascination for the subject, demanding its attention and desire.”
Through this production of the abject body, also originates the establishing of the boundary to, and between, the self. However, there is something enticing about the abject body— something intriguing about its strangeness, which allows the subject to include the body, only to expel once more as a means to re-establish the subject's identity as one that differs from the abject. This production of the body between occurs where the abject body becomes the marker of difference between the subject's body/identity and other bodies within the greater social body. Thus, this inclusion of the abject body is required upon the subject as part of the abjection process in order to re-constitute oneself in relation to others.
The subject must acknowledgment his or her threatened identity (subject formation) when in contact with the the strange body which, as a result, gets expelled as a means to re- constitute the subject's body/identity (subject re-formation) in relation to what they are not, i.e. the threatening and dangerous, abject body. Ahmed writes further, "to differentiate between the familiar and the strange is to mark out the inside and outside of bodily space (to establish skin as a boundary line)."
The abject is that which proves dangerous to both the subject, and the social order; therefore, the abject body must be identified and differentiated from the subject as a means to re-affirm the subject's identity. This technique of differentiation between bodies is important in the process of subject formation and abjection: "The particular bodies that move apart allow the redefinition of social as well as bodily integrity: black bodies are expelled from the white social body despite the threat of further discomfort [...] The emotion of the 'hate' aligns the particular white body with the bodily form of the community— such an emotion functions to substantiate the threat of invasion and contamination in the dirty bodies of strangers.
Within the context of this paper, and as explained by Ahmed, it is the Black body/skin that is differentiated from white body/skin, and further, white identity: "the encounter through which the subject assumes a body image and comes to be distinguishable from the Other is a racial encounter," (emphasis added). 13 The Black body threatens the white body/identity, and thus the larger social order. As result of Ahmed's theoretical framing of the bodily encounter with other bodies, the central marker of social difference amongst bodies consequently becomes skin: "Both incorporation and expulsion serve to re-form the contours of the body, suggesting that the skin, not only registers familiarity and strangeness, but is touched by both differently, in such a way that the skin becomes the locus for social differentiation."
Thus, Ahmed's model of the abject and the process of abjection produces and reproduces (or reaffirms) white identity—the subject— as differentiating from that which is abject: The Black body. Ahmed asserts that the process of abjection does not merely happen on the individual level, but also the social level. With Ahmed's theoretical concept of the abject, and the process of abjection outlined, I now will move to provide various historical examples illustrating instances wherein the Black body has been casted out as abject, less-than, and dangerous to the individual white body and larger U.S. social body.
The Black Body Through White Eyes
Historically speaking, Black bodies have always been foreign; strange; and excluded within the United States. Since their wrongful arrival to the U.S. to be sold as chattel, Black bodies have suffered hundreds of years of dehumanization, exploitation, and bodily fixation through the white gaze. This bodily fixation, which Black bodies have been forced to endure, has ultimately constructed them as racialized objects to be manipulated and expendable in order for the white community to differentiate that which is 'pure' (the white body) from what taints, disgusts, and is dangerous to the social order and white identity as a whole (the black body). Throughout the first chapter of Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media, Ronald L. Jackson explores the historical production and reproduction of the abject Black body.
Beginning with the practices of white slave owners, Jackson addresses how the system of slavery worked to diminish slaves of any sense of self in order to keep them hopeless within the system. In order to keep slaves inept, and at the hands of their merciless slave owners, white slave masters over worked their slaves to the point of exhaustion, under inconceivable conditions, day in and day out day in and day out. Slaves were only to be considered as property, liken to that of livestock; they were reduced of any value more than their listed price at the slave auction. Therefore, the enslaved Black body was physically inducted into the United States territory, however expelled from acknowledgement of their basic human subjectivity, rights, and agency. These enslaved Black bodies were constantly devalued and dehumanized in order to reaffirm the white slave owner's unjust and inhumane actions. This treatment and regard to the Black body inevitably rendered them abject, moreover, powerless to combat their situation.
"This devaluation and objectification of Black bodies arrested any agency to define the Black self, but also intercepted any public valuation of Blacks as subject. Subjectivity was owned by Whites; they were self-authorized to see themselves as pure, good, competent, and deserving of privilege. They devised the essence of racial particularity by averting their gaze away from Blacks and applying injunctive pressure on them to behave in ways that complied with their own modernist obsessions."
Black bodies were the marionette; the white slave owners were the master puppeteers; and the system of slavery was the white-owned and white-run stage. As a means to further rid Black bodies of any human agency, slaves were forced to suffer in isolation and familial ties were severed. Inhibiting slaves' ability to properly form strong, emotional bonds by separating families, ultimately left the lives of family members and loved ones in the hands of their cruel slave owners.
"Fostering a climate of separation that would not allow communion of slave and slave master as human beings. The civilized-savage and human-inhuman dichotomies were intentionally arranged by the owner to maintain distance and disdain, to prove his self that Black bodies were devoid of interiority or basic thinking and reasoning skills."
As purely an object meant for the production of labor, speculation, and ridicule, the Black body was denied its humanity and basic human rights. They were to be considered void of not only mental intelligence, but also emotional intelligence, Black bodies were nothing more than a machine for the white man to wield.
"The body can be said to be political because it, as an immediately identifiable and visible marker of difference, accounted for the distribution of material, special, temporal resources Black bodies were not allowed to share. It was discursively bound because, although it was polysemic, the primary meaning the Black body conveyed was its correspondence to an object believed to be a subhuman, heathenish utility. The body was needed to perform labor and generate revenue; therefore, as long as the slave appeared happy-go-lucky, his or her physicality and physical readiness were of the utmost importance."
The enslaved Black body was suitable purely for its production value. The Black body was thus determined to be fit depending on the quality of work that was to be gained from the white owner's investment. This denial of citizenship, more, human agency left the Black body abject and outside of consideration as a rights-bearing individual and denied them of basic human rights. In this value, and spectacle, of the Black body only for its potential productivity arises another form of abjection which Jackson offers within the context of "strange fruit”, a term coined by artist Billie Holiday.
These "strange fruit” hanging from the tree were lynched victims, swaying as their limp Black bodies still hang suspended from the tree: "as many a 120 Black men and women were lynched between 1900 and 1901".20 Jackson explores this paradoxical term further, writing, " 'strange', which implies something that is foreign, weird, out of ordinary, and unpredictable,”21 whereas the mental image the word fruit conjures up, invites people to envision its beauty when at its ripest; fruit is beautiful and enticing, and the inside is filled with delicious and highly valued sustenance. The strange, however, is unpredictable; it's foreign and unknown to whomever may encounter it. Thus, this paradox of the lynched bodies resembling "strange fruit" as they hang, lifeless— both enticing and peculiar— paints a vivid picture of how the Black body has come to formation through the white gaze: "Black bodies were hung as objects of the White voyeuristic gaze."
Jackson explains the many instances of lynch mobs that gather in the event of lynching a Black body as a form of brutal punishment for a crime they may or may not have committed, reinforcement of white supremacy rule over Black bodies, and above all: entertainment. This spectacle of the hanging Black body, lifeless and immobile, complied with the larger white supremacist laws that forbid the freedom of Black bodies within the greater, white community. Moreover that, while Black bodies may be freed from the chains of slavery, they were not free from white supremacist authority and abjection; white dominance still had its chains shackled upon the Black body, its perception, and its abject role within the larger society.
During the slave trade, and long after, Black male bodies were perceived as a constant sexual and deviant threat; Black male bodies- muscular and tall— were a constant threat to the purity of the white man's daughter, moreover, the white bloodline, forever tainting it just just by one drop of his non-white blood.24 Thoughts of unpredictable masculine Black men freely perpetrating acts of violence against white members of society circulated the minds of many white Americans as they tried to cope with their fears and anxieties regarding the unchained Black body.
In this respect, Jackson explores a common stereotype of Black men which worked to dehumanize Black masculine bodies, following and shaping the perception of these particular bodies throughout the history of American society leading us to the present discussion in this paper. Black identity within the U.S. has been racialized and constructed by whites as a means to render them less-than, disenfranchised, and opposite to whiteness. Yet Black bodies, especially Black male bodies, remain a constant threat white identity. One particular, long-lasting and harmful process of abjection regarding the Black male body, as best explained by Jackson, is the Buck stereotype: "This character explicitly showcased two major fears or anxieties of White men: first, theft, and second, the possibility that she [the white woman, wife or daughter] might be masochistically excited by his sexual nature and accept him despite his flaws, which might lead eventually to miscegenated offspring, hence defying the code of White racial purity."
This deviant character, ruled by his insatiable sexual desires and fueled by retaliation against the white men for the injustices of the enforcement of slavery, and white supremacist ideology thereafter, had one violent goal in mind: raping white women.25 Further, this ruthless character, in its unpredictable nature, symbolized much more for white America and its perception of the Black masculine body. That is, the Black masculine body had a natural inclination towards committing unprovoked violent crimes upon and against white America- leaving white identity contingent upon if and when the Black man would strike against a white man, his wife and/or daughter. This fearful and anxiety-ridden perception of the 'violent' Black male body has plagued the Black community for years and remains highly relevant to the abjection and stereotype threat exemplified through racist policing in contemporary American society.
Why Black Lives Matter
Today's portrayal of black men in the media still embodies that white-American fear of the seemingly violent black man, so much that it has begun to actually define black men and their actions in society. The outlet of these misrepresentations? The media. Newscasts, in their portrayals of Black male suspects depict them as gangsters, drug-dealers, thugs, and the most damaging: violent. As a result of the media's misrepresentation, this fear has situated itself nicely 25 Ibid., 41.
In the minds of many Americans today, shaping their opinions and interactions with Black bodies. It is no surprise that the media influences and shapes individual views, on a local and national level, regarding the stories which are selected for broadcast. Therefore, white supremacist patriarchal ideals, stemming from slavery, imbued in contemporary American society and its institutions, such as policing, work to disenfranchise and render Black bodies within as abject. Now returning to the aforementioned case of the slain Mike Brown, we have analyzed the outpour of political protests that occurred in Los Angeles, and across the nation, in the wake of the jury's verdict to not indict Officer Darren Wilson; however, what has not been established are the events that took place the day Mike Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri.
Summer of August 9, 2014 Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, lay lifeless and bleeding in the middle of a neighborhood street in Ferguson, Missouri. 26 The cause of death was an altercation with a white Officer Darren Wilson, who consequently, shot Brown at least six times. The preliminary autopsy showed Brown was shot in his right arm, the top of the head, and through right eye exiting out of Brown's jaw only to re-enter into his collarbone." Forensic pathologist Shawn Parcells, who assisted in the autopsy, revealed one of the gunshot wounds on Brown's arm could have been sustained while his back was turned towards Officer Wilson, in an attempt to run for his life, or whilst he had his hands up as a sign of surrender— contradicting Officer Wilson's account of self-defense from Brown who had "charged" at the Officer, grabbing for his weapon.
It only took three minutes for Michael Brown to lose his life 30, but the outrage and political unrest to follow the tragic incident endures as the number of Black bodies that have fallen victim to the excessive force and racist policing of police officers across the nation, continues to increase. This event and the failed indictment of Officer Wilson for the use of unlawful deadly force to kill an unarmed teen, in particular, has fueled a large sum of the political actions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter actively voice their claims of injustices and inequality against the inhumane treatment of— and unequal regard to— Black bodies, as exemplified in racist policing within the United States.
Sparked after the outrage of the failed indictment of neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, 31 Black Lives Matter is a movement created as a means to gain a voice, proper representation, and political traction in their claims of injustice and systematic oppression of Black lives within the United States. This oppression and disenfranchisement, as I have outlined above, has occurred as a result of this nation's founding upon the enslavement of Black bodies and continual white supremacist patriarchal processes ingrained in institutions and social order which render Black bodies abject within society.
"Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de- humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti- Black racism that permeates our society. Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. [...] It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement. When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity."
The Black Lives Matter movement, has had more than 1,030 protests held in its name since August 2014. In each of its many protests and demonstrations across the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement employs Peter Nyers' Rancierian notion of a ‘taking-politics. Through the movements response to the abject Black bodily experience in the United States, whose activism focuses largely on racial justice and responding to racist policing, it disrupts the social order and demands that Black lives/bodies be considered as human rights-bearing, citizens. “The abject,” writes Nyers, "suffer from a form of purity that demands them to be speechless victims, invisible and apolitical,"34 the Black Lives Matter movement, however, aims to counter the abjection of Black bodies and does so by employing some of Nyers' tactics.
For consistency, and as a key example of the ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding their voice be heard can be exhibited in their employment of Nyers' taking speech and space politics, therefore, I will use the movement's interruption of the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle addressing the candidate directly and demanding the crowd in a moment of silence in commemoration of Mike Brown.
Nyers outlines these tactics within the context of global migration, the anti-deportation movement, and its abject migrants. I argue through example, however, that Nyers' theory still identifies crucial aspects to the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement and their response to the abject Black bodily experience in today's society. Nyers elaborates further on the tactics of taking-politics when he writes: "These tactics have been proven to be important for how they disrupt the administration, the routines, and above all the normality of deportations. They are also significant, however, as a form of taking-politics: delegation visits allow the non-status, those who have 'no part', to assert their political voice [...] Understood together, these tactical measures are crucial to the possibilities of abject cosmopolitan political agency."
It is important to note for the context of this paper, I substitute Nyers' notion of taking-politics that disrupt the 'normality of deportations' as tactics that disrupt the normality of marginalization, disenfranchisement, and neglect of Black bodies in the United States. More, I substitute the theoretical term of 'abject cosmopolitan' for 'abject national' (i.e. the Black body). Elaborating on the importance and use of the taking speech and space tactics, Nyers explains that "direct action tactics work best when they organize around existing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the system [...] allow for face-to-face encounters with state officials invested with enormous powers of discretion."
A key example of the power of such tactics as it relates to the employment by the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement occurred at a Bernie Sanders rally in August 2015— a year after the fatal shooting of Mike Brown. This was Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' first event in Seattle, to discuss Social Security. However, only seconds after taking the stage, Sanders was disrupted by banner-holding Black Lives Matter activists, one of which was the co- founder of the movement, who took charge of the stage and the microphone.37 Not only did these activists jump barricades to command the space and proper representation in their engagement with Rancierian politics, but they also were able to voice their political claims in their demands that Sanders release what he plans to do regarding the reform of policing.38 Additionally, the activists were also successful in their demand for a moment of silence in honor of Mike Brown, who lost his life only a year before the current demonstration.
This is only one instance of the many instances in which the Black Lives Matter movement has commanded space which has not been theirs, and demanded that their voices be heard in order to gain representation that was never afforded to them within the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement, as outlined in their mission statement and engagement with Nyers' Rancierian notion of taking-politics, actively works to gain what Black bodies have never been afforded within a society whose institutions have worked to expel them— that is, the Black Lives Matter movement calls for equal, humane treatment; equal opportunity; equal representation; and proper inclusion as rights-bearing citizens whose lives do matter.
From their wrongful kidnapping and unjust arrival to the United States, the Black community was left with no choice but to leave behind their cultural ties, family ties, and individual identity. Upon their liberation, Black Americans were considered of no real value to society. Continuously treated as second-class citizens and expendable objects, the Black community was left powerless without much freedom of choice in a nation that values choice as a means for individualism. When choice is forcefully ripped away, ultimately what is taken away is the fundamental key to human rights and rights protection in the United States— thus characterizing the beginning of the Black community's struggle for equality in a post-colonial America.
The Black Lives Matter movement, through its nationwide political and racial justice activism, has made obvious its demands that the Black bodily struggle for proper representation and equal treatment on the basis of human rights be heard. Black Lives Matter is not a moment. Black Lives Matter is a political movement that is paving the way for the proper inclusion of rights-bearing, human Black bodies with agency. More, this movement is calling for systematic change to the sustained processes of white supremacist patriarchal imposed abjection of Black bodies within the United States. The Black community, and its allies, are tired of hearing about another abject Black body dead on the cement at the fault of another police officer- regardless of this fear that is so strongly ingrained in the minds of white Americans permanently attached to this notion of 'violent black masculinity'.
If an individual fear another individual so much that his or her first instinct is to shoot, and inevitably kill, there is something inherently wrong with that framework. When will society and its institutions begin to acknowledge and believe that Black Lives Matter? This cyclical nature of history, and the processes of rending Black bodies abject and expendable, is repeating itself and it is plastered all over the media, social media news feeds and exemplified by the increasing number of deaths that are a result of racist policing. This nation was founded upon the enslavement, slaughter, and disenfranchisement of both its indigenous people and Black bodies wrongly brought here hundreds of years ago.
The struggle for Civil Rights has never ceased, nor has the racism and white supremacist patriarchy stopped persisting in and throughout the various institutions of this nation— it has only gotten better at disguising itself. The disguise, however, is beginning to falter as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement's activism and persistent demand for the issues that lay underneath to be rightfully acknowledged and properly dealt with, so that this vicious cycle can come to an end. Until then, the mission and loud claims of the movement and its participants remain strong in their assertion that Black Lives Matter.
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