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Type
Essay
Category
Politics

‘In a rage almost all the time’

In a recent interview on Democracy Now! Michelle Alexander was asked if the damning report released by the US Department of Justice on the situation in Ferguson gave her any hope. The response was understandably ‘No.’ How much hope can one really derive from the ‘official’ recognition of a macabre reality one is already intimately familiar with? It reminded me of the numerous reports and investigations condemning the Israeli occupation and ‘confirming’ the lived and desperate struggle of the Palestinians, as if their experiences needed verification.

We can be more hopeful, Alexander observed, when we realise the possibility of an organised and dedicated social movement that can question and seriously challenge racist practices, the institutions and systems that facilitate them, and the ideologies that sustain them. At the same time, this possibility needs to be evaluated in light of the conditions made visible in the wake of Ferguson. Protest movements in the West are facing governments and state institutions that are increasingly paternalistic, belligerent and dismissive of popular demands, and that employ increasingly aggressive, heavy-handed and militarised tactics in ‘pacifying’ such demands. What is driving these practices, and what are the intellectual and political avenues for challenging this logic?

If there is one theme encompassing the various protest movements over the past several years, it is that of occupation. The revolutions and Occupy collectives that sprang up between 2011 and 2013 were a manifestation of a very basic idea: in occupying public spaces, the people are fashioning it into a place of alternatives, of other possibilities. In this sense, occupation is a progressive, often non-violent movement that acts on behalf of the majority of people by laying claim to what has been appropriated, privatised or exploited by a small number of bankers, politicians, elites, etc. Hence the symbolic articulation of this as a struggle between the 99 per cent and the 1 per cent.

Needless to say, occupation can mean something entirely different for other protest movements. Most commonly, it designates the systems and practices of policing, dispossession and colonisation, often through military procedures, and always through violent means, regardless of the extent or degree of such violence.

These two protest movements – one occupying and the other mobilising against occupation – can and sometimes do intersect, but they are also quite distinct in their experience.

One difference is that those fighting against occupation do so out of the sense that the coloniser, while physically proximate, is existentially distant. The coloniser and the colonised live completely different lives; they inhabit completely dissimilar worlds even while inhabiting the same physical landscape. In a colonial and/or apartheid situation, the colonised is faced with an external other, an invasive other, an other whose occupation, encirclement and dispossession estranges and alienates an occupied people, foreclosing the possibility of coexistence.

This past year has been marked by protests against occupation. The July–August attack on Gaza sparked a global wave of protests against possibly the most brutal and destructive episode to thus far stain Israel’s criminal record. But the protests were also intended to express outrage at Israel’s intensification of its colonisation of the West Bank and its continued deferral of a peaceful and just resolution to the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

It was during the same period that the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent handling of the case led to an uprising in Ferguson, as well as to national and international solidarity protests under the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. Ferguson has since come to symbolise the racial divide characteristic of the US as a whole.

The affinities between the two struggles were strikingly clear throughout the events in Ferguson. When emergency law and nightly curfews were announced, and police and law enforcement descended on the city in military and riot gear, protesters denounced the state government’s disproportionate and military-style response to an already explosive situation. As is now well known, the protesters also highlighted the similarities of this response to the notorious Israeli Defence Forces, to which Gaza residents and Palestinians in general responded by sharing their sympathy as well as expertise in dealing with an occupying force.

It’s important to stress correspondence rather than comparison, here – how these situations speak to one another despite their differences. The above is simply to reiterate what Palestinians and US activists have already articulated as resonating in their respective experiences. If Ferguson has become so effectively symbolic, it is because it has revealed in a stark way the reality of the situation in many parts of the US and, arguably, other western countries. The latter have for a considerable time – and with increasing intensity over the past few years – been experiencing a shift towards a politics of consensus and intolerance of dissent, almost always supplemented by stigmatising a group of racialised and/or sexualised others. This is, of course, nothing new, and has been part and parcel of the West’s ‘post-ideological’, ‘post-racial’ forms of governmentality. What has become clear in recent years, and what makes the correspondence between activists in Ferguson and Palestine so evocative, is that (1) there is a harmonisation of this kind of politics across countries that see themselves as western, (2) the institutions, tactics and discourses deployed by these governments are less prone to public debate or criticism, and more likely to be punitive, pre-emptive and heavy-handed and (3) the violent and hyper-masculinist nature of the actions and rhetoric directed against the racialised/sexualised groups is increasingly normalised.

The suggestion here is that Ferguson can be understood as more than a fight against militarised and racist police institutions, a structurally racist court and judicial system, and the excesses and effects of the war on drugs and the carceral state. These fields of struggle are undoubtedly at the heart of the Ferguson upsurge, and are factors that continue to be analysed and debated on the streets of the US and internationally. But it may also be the case that Ferguson gave us a glimpse of what globalisation really looks like in this day and age: the logic that animates it, and how it manifests itself in the practices of western governments.

The most notable of the events in Ferguson is the swiftness of the government’s response to the protesters. Within a day of Brown’s murder, police were already mobilised in riot gear. Within a week, the state governor had announced a state of emergency, the beginning of nightly curfews and the mobilisation of the National Guard. During the standoff, protesters were essentially engaging in street battles with armed police, highway patrol and SWAT teams. For a community that has been largely accustomed to dealing with a neglectful and unresponsive local government, this must have been an astonishing show of force and efficiency. The DOJ report goes a long way towards explaining this peculiar behaviour: in Ferguson, like in other areas of St Louis, the institutions of law enforcement are possibly the most significant and functional part of local government.

The police force has largely honed its institutional capacity in St Louis by working with the municipal court system to raise revenue for the local government. For the 2015 fiscal year, the city’s budget anticipates $3.09 million of its $13.26 million in general fund revenues will be raised through fines and fees. In the absence of all the major requisites for a functioning public sector – municipal court reform, unified tax system, stable property tax base, county revenue sharing, fiscal management, integrated education system and so on – the police and law enforcement stepped in to harvest revenue by scraping the bottom of the barrel, from parking fines to uncut grass penalties. The police, working in tandem with the courts, functioned much like a racket, collecting payments or facilitating arrests and prison sentences. In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued over 32,000 arrest warrants in a town of 21,000 people. Given the apartheid antecedents of St Louis’ history, it is mostly poor, African-American residents of Ferguson who suffer the punitive measures of a municipal court and police system set up to protect white interests.

Social scientists who study non-western countries refer to some governments as ‘lame leviathans’ (see, for instance, T Callaghy and WJ Dorman). These are governments that operate out of central megacities through wilful neglect towards the rest of the country, and acting only to facilitate and protect the rent-seeking capacities of metropolitan elites. In so doing, they also act as gatekeepers, deploying gargantuan police forces and technologies to survey, monitor and, if necessary, repress local populations suffering the exploitative activities of ‘the market’. These wretched masses thus come to know their governments only through the gang-like activities of local police forces and government-appointed bureaucrats and local heads. The similarities speak for themselves: it is possible to see how what we call ‘globalisation’ has created corresponding conditions in the ‘south of the South’ and the ‘south of the North’. It is also little wonder that in Ferguson residents felt ‘under occupation’ by a government they knew mostly through interaction with a colonial-like police force.

In situations such as these, the police force is in charge of much more than public security. The police start exercising a form of governmentality, similar to that analysed by Foucault in his examination of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social thought. European writers envisioned the police at the time as a function (rather than an organisation per se) of the state to regulate everything from the maintenance of roads to the disciplining of the poor. This vision was not created in a vacuum, but rather crystallised in both theory and application in the governance of the colonies – Britain in India, France in Algeria, the US, more recently and no less, in its expeditions in Latin America and, of course, Vietnam. During the ‘long hot summers’ of 1965–68, local police forces were at a loss in dealing with civil unrest and thus turned to the military. From that point on, counterinsurgency expertise and equipment were supplied by the military to outfit police forces for ‘pacifying’ local forms of resistance and dissent. The emphasis here is not on militarisation, but on pacification. The latter entails that the transfer of militarised knowledge and technologies is unevenly distributed depending on the assessment of ‘risk’: militarisation takes place when policing – that is, ‘pacifying’ – non-white and poor areas and suburbs.

With the ‘war on terror’, the lines between national defence/security and internal policing was blurred even further, and the forms of technology and expertise in these areas greatly expanded, accelerating the formation of what looks like a permanently warring society. In his new book Alter-Politics, Ghassan Hage explores the history and emergence of what he calls the late colonial settler condition: a set of social formations that are conducive for the growth of such warring societies. As western states experience material and existential crises and the decline of their power, they begin to live and act out colonial, cartographic fantasies: ‘we are islands of civilisation beset by a sea of barbarians!’

There are two particular points in Hage’s discussion that should be stressed here. First, in the late colonial settler culture, battle lines are redrawn as these combatant societies start doing war not just on their peripheries, but also in their very midst, targeting their own citizens and inhabitants. In the wake of Ferguson, a widely circulated revelation was the discovery of a ‘black site’ in Chicago, in which police conducted detention and interrogation. Thus, the practices that many believed to be relegated to the colonial frontiers in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo begin to emerge in the metropolis.

The second point, which relates importantly to the connection between struggles across the western countries, is that the late colonial settler condition tends to dominate, and to bring together, governments that see themselves as representing western civilisation. Forged under the banner of ‘counter-terrorism’, this identity gains its homogeneity especially through and against the Muslim other. But lest we understand this ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative on its own terms, it is important to remember that it largely works as an alibi to legitimate and legislate unpopular policies devastating to the social and natural environment. On a different level altogether, the late colonial settler condition undergirds the transformation of the ‘West’ into a global policeman. As much as ‘pacification’, the catchword of the day is ‘harmonisation’, as western governments tend to homogenise the legislations, procedures, technologies and information-gathering and sharing techniques that deal with populations of ‘risk’ – from asylum seekers, to communities of colour, to sex workers.

 

Why go through all the arguments and critiques, and open the debate to such generalisations, in order to explore a series of protests and street clashes in a small city in Missouri? Because there is something wholly debilitating, both intellectually and politically, about discussing or dismissing Ferguson as just another shocking yet largely hapless and helpless case of American-style racism. To frame the issue this way is to ignore many important questions, among them: what in us makes us so preoccupied with such events, even as we debate them as if they are taking place in an entirely different world? The globalisation of the late settler colonial condition, as Hage describes it, is not only a matter of policy-making and information-sharing, but also of organising particular patterns of social relations and ‘structures of feeling’ in which policing and risk-management are key. The correspondence between the activists in Palestine and in Ferguson highlighted not only this, but also points to the possibilities both opened up and foreclosed by these conditions.

Going back to the notion of colonial occupation highlighted above, we can think of this situation as the maintenance, through policing and managerial practices, of an order of irreconcilable difference between two experiences of social reality: that of the coloniser and that of the colonised. The kind of racism in such a situation is one that today would like to be rid of and independent of the racialised colonised other. This is exemplified by Zionist settler practice: since the Oslo Accords, and under the conditions of late capitalism, Israel has been able to forgo its need of Palestinian labour, depending instead on transnational flows of capital from the US and on nomadic flows of ‘cheap labour’ from African and Asian countries. As Hage phrases it in his book, the racism of exploitation – the other is unwanted but necessary – has largely been replaced by the racism of extermination – the other is unwanted and unnecessary – which would explain in many ways the increasing cruelty and impunity with which Israel treats Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, but also in the occupied territories in general. Far from rejecting this order of things, those living in such situations – which, of course, vary across the western world – can in fact become interpellated by its ideology and its practices of policing and risk management. The prevailing notion is then a calculative one of ‘Yes, this state is a racist one, but so long as it is not racist against me, I will tolerate itor ‘so long as it protects me from the other, I will tolerate it’. In other words, like the many countries it has ‘democratised’ through imperialism, the West itself is becoming more sectarian.

What the events in Ferguson and the revolutionary and Occupy movements of previous years have shown is that this ideology is having less and less of a purchase. Or, at least, that in such conditions in which the state tends to distance itself and to simply manage from above, it is more and more possible for people to do politics at a distance from the state. This is not to romanticise the struggles or their conditions of possibility – as the pundits and commentators never tire of reminding us, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the movements in Greece and Spain have ‘failed’ miserably – but rather to say that we can expect to see more of such occurrences in which an emancipatory impulse is likely to take hold. The point to stress is that this impulse should not only be directed against the colonial order of things and the racist, oppressive state, but also towards something else. If there is anything to learn from the anti-colonialism of the last century, it is that the fixation on dismantling the colonial order ended up reproducing it in many ways. The lesson for this century would be that while having an eye for dismantling oppressive systems, emancipatory initiatives should also keep an eye on furnishing alternatives in the process of doing so. What makes the experience of Ferguson’s activists so poignant is precisely that in the midst of a heated battle with the occupation forces, they were still looking elsewhere, inviting the experiences of a wholly different world to interpenetrate their own. The comparison of their experience to the Palestinian struggle was not a matter of blurring or mitigating the differences in the situations, but of highlighting the continuities of the local struggles against a prevailing condition of colonial occupation, and its attendant logic of securitisation and risk management.

In her interview, Michelle Alexander was right to say that a nationwide social movement is necessary to initiate lasting change. It must be added, though, that while being nationwide, such a social movement should not be nation-centred. At the very moment when the nation state seeks to redefine its role as the warrior and the policeman, those being policed would do well to measure their politics by the distance they put between their own practices and those of the nation state. If the colonial order of things is predicated on the policing and management of difference, a truly radical alternative might be the creation of spaces where egalitarian sameness can thrive. Not in the assimilationist sense of blurring, ignoring or stamping out difference, but in the sense of being, quite simply, indifferent to difference. Again, the experience of the Palestinian and American activists is informative here: our social and historical situations are infinitely different, but that is not the point – our struggles are one and the same now. In articulating our situations in this way, and in looking elsewhere, we are able to take ourselves outside the particular conditions that may come to define and determine our dispositions. This would allow the politics, spaces and platforms on which we organise to be inflected not just by negative reference to what is – we don’t want racist, exclusionary systems, we don’t want the carceral state, we don’t want warring settler colonialism – but also by prescribing a trajectory to what could be – we want deliberative and participatory forms of decision-making, we want egalitarian spaces of inclusion, we want infrastructures for mutual care and wellbeing. But we also want these things to be defined on our own terms, not those dictated by the settler colonial state.

The kind of anti-racism we can think of in the wake of Ferguson can be other than the liberal ‘multicultural’ as well as the (not so) post-colonial, nation-centred variants. Rather than exclusively being an ‘issue’ for the management and self-legitimation of the state, civil society or the community, anti-racism can be recalled as an egalitarian sensibility and an essential quality of the practices and projects of emancipation, wherever these might be, and whoever they might involve.

 

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Faisal Al-Asaad is Iraqi-born, and lived and studied in Auckland. He is currently based in Australia, where he is studying and working at the University of Melbourne.

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