On Slow and Spectacular Violence

In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown I wrote about Ferguson, a catharsis of feeling, a mourning for another life taken, a way to choose my side and sadness that I should come from a country so drowned in fear and hate that there could even be two sides. All Americans should have mourned Michael’s loss as they would have their son, father, brother. They should have all demanded change. But that is not what happened.

It didn’t happen for Oscar Grant, for Trayvon Martin, for Eric Garner, for hundreds of Black men and women killed without compunction. We need to understand why because we need to change it.

I didn’t analyze the situation in view of all I had been writing and theorising on segregation and racism for my PhD, intellectualisation felt completely beyond me. So I was happy to see ‘The Making of Ferguson‘ from Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, who comprehensively outlined the decades of public policy that created the segregated city of St Louis and other US cities, the segregation (and resulting decimation of non-white communities) that I agree is central to any understanding of what created Ferguson. Much of this is based on work by Colin Gordon, and his book Mapping Decline (highly recommended, especially for those who love maps). Here is Rothstein’s outline of the policies that created a white world of wealth and resources, separated from the worlds of peoples of colour confined to poverty and desperation:

      • Racially explicit zoning decisions that designated specific ghetto boundaries within the city of St. Louis, turning black neighborhoods into slums;
      • Segregated public housing projects that separated blacks and whites who had previously lived in more integrated urban areas;
      • Restrictive covenants, excluding African Americans from white areas, that began as private agreements but then were adopted as explicit public policy;
      • Government subsidies for white suburban developments that excluded blacks, depriving African Americans of the 20th century home-equity driven wealth gains reaped by whites;
      • Denial of adequate municipal services in ghettos, leading to slum conditions in black neighborhoods that reinforced whites’ conviction that “blacks” and “slums” were synonymous;
      • Boundary, annexation, spot zoning, and municipal incorporation policies designed to remove African Americans from residence near white neighborhoods, or to prevent them from establishing residence near white neighborhoods;
      • Urban renewal and redevelopment programs to shift ghetto locations, in the guise of cleaning up those slums;
      • Government regulators’ tacit (and sometimes open) support for real estate and financial sector policies and practices that explicitly promoted residential segregation;
      • A government-sponsored dual labor market that made suburban housing less affordable for African Americans by preventing them from accumulating wealth needed to participate in homeownership.

Rothstein is anxious to place the blame on public policy, not private racism, because policy is something we can shift, something we can change.

But we have to shift more than that.

It is dangerous to ignore the extreme levels of violence that maintained racial boundaries, the normalisation of white violence that occurred across the country over decades. In my own research on L.A. I found hundreds of incidents, several where death was intended and sometimes achieved. Mobs gathered to threaten families, burn crosses. They left tacks, nails and broken glass in lawns and driveways, hung and burned effigies, threw bottles and bricks and stones, emptied shotguns through windows, bombed and burned down homes. A white gang of youths formed in South L.A. in the 1940s, called themselves the Spook Hunters. They patrolled white neighborhoods and occasionally crossed the ‘Alameda Wall’ to harass Black youth where they lived. The emblem on the back of their jackets was a swollen Black face above a noose. Their community didn’t mind they wore them proudly.

All this, but I know L.A. ain’t no St Louis, Missouri.

One of the most harrowing and best accounts of white mob violence is of Detroit — Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. There is Arnold Hirsch and Cayton & Drake on Chicago. Kenneth Clark’s amazing analysis of Harlem in Dark Ghetto. W.E.B. Du Bois’s study of Philadelphia. Stephen Grant Meyer on organised, violent white people defending their neighbourhoods across the nation, encapsulating a long understood sentiment in his title: As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door. This is the history of every single city. Every. Single. City.Judith Butler’s recent response in an interview about #blacklivesmatter focuses on some of what makes this violence possible, beginning with slavery:

But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized… it is a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.

It comes down, like the long history of mob and state violence enforcing segregation, to defense:

In other words, every time a grand jury or a police review board accepts this form of reasoning, they ratify the idea that blacks are a population against which society must be defended, and that the police defend themselves and (white) society, when they preemptively shoot unarmed black men in public space.

I didn’t find the tools here, though, to explain either the reality of the violence that the events in Ferguson embody, the exclusion of people from society due to skin colour, or the source of this deeply felt need among whites for defense, one that is so sure of itself, it can justify the murder of unarmed children.

So I turn now to a few of the writers who helped me think through my thesis. This is a provisional thinking through of their ideas in relation to Ferguson and the reactions to #blacklivesmatter that I need to keep coming back to.

I wrote this for Dr Pop as part of a more collective contribution to thinking through what is happening in the US. You can read the rest here, and check out the other pieces as well…

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