“So we heard the proposition last night, ‘We need to dismantle the United States.’ This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, ‘Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?’ That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide.”—Andrea Smith, March 2011, at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide
November 25, 2011
June 28, 2011
January 14, 2011
July 17, 2010
The politics of truth pertains to those relations of power that circumscribe in advance what will and will not count as truth, which order the world in certain regular and regulatable ways, and which we come to accept as the given field of knowledge. We can understand the salience of this point when we begin to ask: What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Subjectively, we ask: Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth? Is this not precisely what is meant by “the desubjugation of the subject in the play of […] the politics of truth?”
—Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”
One day Emily was holding a very high and intellectual conversation with ———— where they were quite above the mundane plane. Mrs. Dickinson had fussed in and out many times to see if they needed anything, and at last she bustled in, just at some fine climax of the talk, and asked if ————’s feet were not cold, wouldn’t she like to come in the kitchen and warm them? Emily gave up in despair at that. ‘Wouldn’t you like to have the Declaration of Independence read, or the Lord’s Prayer repeated,’ and she went on with a long list of unspeakably funny things to be done.
—Millicent Todd Bingham, quoted in Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson
Two recent news stories about the discovered textual practices of the framers of the U.S. Constitution seemed to assume an easy metonymical resonance. First, on the margins of the origins of American exceptionalism: three months ago we learned that George Washington stole the book on international law, and the debt has been accruing ever since. And late last month—certainly in time for July 4, but also broadly in time for Arizona’s escalation of the “debate” over “illegals,” and just about in time for the delivery of an involuntary-manslaughter verdict in the case of the unspeakable Oscar Grant—a U.S. citizen who was suddenly not a citizen, because he was lying face-down on the ground, a picture of guiltless subjection to the law, when the law, as represented by Johannes Mehserle, shot him in the back—the Library of Congress announced that when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence he wrote “fellow-subjects,” blotted it out, and replaced “subjects” with “citizens.”
Above is a digital snapshot of the hyperspectral imaging process, from the AOLNews story. It embodies an archaeological reverse-teleology that I would hope to pause or to apprehend, at least for a moment. Like Micki McGee, writing for the Social Text blog, I’m not sure how helpful it is to describe this correction the way the news stories do, as the heretofore-successful burial of the traces of a “Freudian slip”—although I’m unsure for different reasons. McGee says it is “not clear at all that this wording and rewording would qualify as a repressed idea or desire percolating up from Jefferson’s unconscious, even if such psychoanalytic parlance can be applied to a draft developed more than a hundred years before Freud came up with the concept”: for one thing, I’d say (if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader), wouldn’t a century-old draft be almost the ideal site for the application of this parlance? (But if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader I would go on to say something really tedious about the distance between the parlance of strict psychoanalysis and the popular parlance of “Freudian slips”…) More to the point, though: noting that the import of the words “subject” and “citizen” is in so many ways still under contestation, McGee adds that the picture of those words here led her back to John Zerzan’s anti-anti-humanist “critique of the post-structuralist parlance of ‘subjects’ and ‘subjectivity'”—the implied move being, I think, an affirmation of Jefferson’s corrective intentions, a celebration of the autonomy that might result from thinking of ourselves as (global?) citizens over thinking of ourselves as subjects. I was actually led in what must be the opposite direction—back to Butler’s “What is Critique?”, with its reminder that Foucault’s project aims to involve not only the delineation of the constraints of subjectivity, but also the desubjugation of the subject. And I started to wonder if this account of Foucault and of critique (not to mention Butler’s more recent thinking on states and citizens) might enable, or even necessitate, a kind of Dickinsonian choosing-not-choosing among variants in the reading of Jefferson’s draft. A kind of recognition that, however much we might debate the benefits of considering ourselves subjects over citizens or citizens over subjects, we remain something unspeakable (at least by a single voice): .
I’m talking about “us” partly because that’s how McGee frames her question. (“On this Fourth of July weekend, I find myself wondering broadly: where are we building spaces of autonomy, and where are we bowing like subjects?”) But I also want to call “us” into question, because it’s worth saying something, though I’m not an especially well-equipped person to say it, about the context of Jefferson’s revision, and about the relation between his erasure and the further erasures that are enacted in all the popular news coverage of this story. The sentences in which Jefferson replaced “subjects” with “citizens” run as follows:
he has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence;
Those sentences don’t quite appear in the final draft of the Declaration:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us , and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
“Domestic insurrections” are slave revolts. In Jefferson’s original draft the charge of “insurrections” is followed by the self-incriminating condemnation of the slave trade that was simply cut from the final document; Congress’s version also turns “incited” to “excited” (muddying the question of agency), “treasonable” to “domestic” (because slave revolts aren’t treasonable, because slaves are neither subjects nor citizens), and an ambiguous “in” to an all-too-comprehensible “among”; and collapses “Indian savages” and unspeakable slaves into one group, the Others at the frontiers of a frighteningly simple “us”—”we” who incorporate “all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence,” or in other words we white people who belong on this land—as if admitting that the choice between “citizens” and “subjects” was in the end both undecidable and irrelevant.
July 9, 2010
On July 6 Israel announced “justice” for the massacre of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza:
The staff sergeant accused of killing at least one civilian faces a manslaughter charge. Beyond that, the military said a battalion commander was indicted on suspicion of deviating from “authorized and appropriate” army behavior and from an Israeli Supreme Court ruling when he authorized a Palestinian man to act as a kind of human shield by entering a house where militants were sheltering in order to persuade them to leave. […]
In a third case, the chief of staff ordered disciplinary action against an officer who ordered an aerial strike on a militant involved in launching rockets. The man was standing outside the Ibrahim al-Maqadma mosque, the army said, and the shrapnel caused what it called unintentional injuries to civilians inside. The Goldstone report said that an Israeli projectile struck near the doorway of the mosque, in northern Gaza, during evening prayers, killing at least 15 civilians who were mostly inside.
The military said that the officer had “failed to exercise appropriate judgment,” adding that he would not serve in similar positions of command in the future and that he had been rebuked.
In addition, the chief military prosecutor ordered a criminal investigation by the military police into an airstrike on a house that held about 100 members of the extended Samouni family in Zeitoun, a district of Gaza City.
On July 8 the verdict of “involuntary manslaughter” was announced in the Oscar Grant trial. This is the Ella Baker Center’s response:
However, with the verdict of involuntary manslaughter, even with the gun enhancement, the jury has decreed that Mehserle will receive a sentence of five – fourteen years. Giving up a handful of years of his life seems like a small price for Mehserle to pay for the fact that nothing can bring Grant back to his loved ones. Given the long history of police brutality against members of our communities, describing what happened to Oscar Grant as anything less than murder feels not only inaccurate but also a missed opportunity to affirm that violence against communities of color, especially when inflicted by the police, is unacceptable. When you can watch a video of a young, unarmed Black man being shot to death at close range, calling it anything less than murder feels gravely injust.
No one in the Palestine movement, I think, was much interested in the Israeli military court findings about the Gaza massacre, or surprised by the obvious injustice of, for example, a demotion and a rebuke as punishment for 15 murders. The boycott/divestment/sanctions call, five years old today, is for “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.” And that might not be all we should demand. The Oscar Grant murder is a reminder that legal equality does not mean an end to the injustices, economic and otherwise, that racist systems bring.* But at any rate, it’s clear that an Israeli military court is not where justice will be found: it will come from the struggle led by the Palestinian people.
So while I’m horrified about the verdict in the Mehserle trial, I’m trying to remember: real justice will never come from a court that’s very much a part of the system that contributed to the crime. Here is more from Jakada Imani of the Ella Baker Center from before the verdict, my emphases added, and worth considering for Palestine as much as for Oakland:
On New Year’s day 2009, Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant in the back, that much is clear. What’s less clear is what justice in this case should look like.
I am clear that Mehserle must be held accountable. But that alone is not justice. Locking him up won’t give Oscar Grant’s daughter her father back. It won’t give his mother the chance to see her son continue to grow. And it won’t take away the terror in the hearts of black and brown boys when they are stopped by police officers this summer. A guilty verdict for Mehserle won’t make up for decades of police brutality, racism, unequal justice, exploitation, racial profiling, or socio-economic systems that are rigged against the poor.
I have been an activist for far too long to think that sending someone to prison ever sets things right. Prison adds damage-to-damage and trauma-to-trauma. We don’t want prison to be the only option for young folks who make mistakes. Is it really the only answer for police who make mistakes?
At the same time, Oakland Police and leaders are preparing for the worst – riots to erupt in Oakland, civil unrest- if the verdict of the trial absolves Mehserle. The media is more interested in the idea of cops facing off against the community than uncovering the problems of the justice system, police accountability, and racism at the root of this case. Furthermore, the resources being spent to address this possible unrest would be better used in addressing the distrust and strained relations and trust between police, community leaders, young people and residents. It’s as if the authorities in our community expect the worst from us, planting seeds of fear which could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than investing in true community safety and system reform.
In all the media hype surrounding the trial and the cops vs. protester coverage, something is lost. That something is healing, transformative justice. How do we transform the system that recruited, trained and armed Mehserle and thousands just like him? How do we change the fact that police and civilians alike see young men of color as threatening? How do we build a powerful social movement and not just participate in one-off flash mobs?
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we have to take to the streets. I am down to march, chant, rally, block an intersection, commit civil disobedience- what ever it takes. But not just to make myself feel better. When we take to the streets, we should be saying what we want, clearly and resolutely- not just point out the problems but also demanding the solutions. I know too much to protest the sky, to mistake commotion for motion.
That is why we are supporting Emergency Leadership Forum. A gathering of young leaders from through out Oakland, organized by our allies at Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising. The four-hour Leadership Forum will inform youth about the status of the current legal case, provide young people with a positive process through which they can explore their feelings and frustrations about the situation, and educate them about Social Movement history. The Forum offers youth the tools and the space to work on not just a vision for justice, but a plan. Young people did not get us into this mess, but do have the wisdom to help get us out. Please invest in Urban Peace Movement and Youth UpRising by donating your time and/or financial resources to work with youth on peaceful responses to violence.
In our Families for Books Not Bars Network, we train parents to advocate for their children in the juvenile justice system by telling them not to let the court see their children as the sum total of their worst moment. For Johannes Mehserle, it’s too late. He will forever be seen as the cop who killed an unarmed Black man, as he lay prone. He will have to live with that reality for the rest of his life no matter what the jury decides in Los Angeles.
But for you and me there is time. How will we be remembered? When the jury makes its decision, will we feel victorious or defeated? Which outcome would trigger which response, anyway? What solution would mean that justice has been achieved – for Oscar and his family- and for all of the victims of State violence in our communities? Please share your ideas, your questions, and your feedback so we can move forward together.
As we heal our society so that there can be true and transformative justice, I am reminded that there is just us- we are all we have. We must come together to find the answers and move forward with our heads held high and our commitment to real solutions always lighting our path.
* In addition to healing the trauma, like Imani says (or perhaps as a part of it), reparations seem necessary.