Violence, death and our neoliberal police
“It is critically important to recognize and start working through how the moment of violence and the moment of neoliberalism coalesce.” – Simon Springer
If we examine through the prism of neoliberalism the killing of Philando Castile – that is, if we think of the killing as a moment when violence and neoliberalism coalesced – then we are immediately confronted with the fact that, to a great extent, the current problem of policing is a problem of neoliberal policing. It is a problem of the production of police as officers whose enforcement of the law is guided by neoliberal policies and procedures, the violence of which no amount of body cameras or use of force training or diversity training can adequately address. Indeed, the fact of neoliberal policing requires from all of us a radically different response to policing and police killings, a response by which we directly confront policing, and our governments’ constitution of law enforcement, as neoliberal practice.
So let’s talk about this moment when neoliberalism and violence converged:
Over the course of fourteen years, Minnesota police initiated at least 52 encounters (a staggering number) with Philando Castile, citing him for minor offenses like driving without wearing a seat belt, speeding, and driving without a muffler. These encounters resulted in Philando being assessed a total of $6,588 in fines and fees.
Given these circumstances, let’s assume (indeed, it is probably safe to assume) that St. Anthony Police Department – the police department that employs Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando – operates under a scheme similar to the one that was in place in Ferguson, Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
Under that scheme (as the U.S. Department of Justice found), City of Ferguson officials “routinely” urged its Chief of Police “to generate more revenue” for the City “through enforcement” and to meet specific revenue goals. In response, the Chief pressured his officers and created a culture in which officers competed with one another in generating revenue; created opportunities to issue citations in order to meet revenue goals; engaged primarily African American citizens as objects from which they could profit as well as subjected them to the department’s and City’s market discipline; and, measured their own value and success as police officers in market terms (the department looked favorably upon and rewarded officers who met their revenue demands).
Through this scheme, the City in essence transformed the police into neoliberal police officers, into men and women who would enforce the law in ways that folded penal discipline into the “market-driven disciplinary logic” of neoliberalism, and whose policing became the expression of what Simon Springer calls neoliberalism’s “fundamental virtues”: “individualism, competitiveness and economic self-sufficiency.”
As they sought out opportunities to generate revenue, officers also engaged in the kind of ‘Othering’ upon which neoliberalism depends. As Springer writes, neoliberalism not only “treats as enemies” those “who don’t fit the mold of a proper neoliberal subject” (e.g., possessive individualism, economic self-sufficiency); it also “actively facilitates the abandonment of ‘Others’ who fall outside of ‘neoliberal normativity’, a conceptual category that cuts across multiple categories of discrimination including class, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, age and ability.”
Ferguson’s neoliberal police officers (and city officials) regarded African Americans and poor people as those who don’t fit the mold. The latter were not the victims of neoliberal policies that had been embraced on a local, national and global scale. Instead, they were failures, people who were unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and remake themselves in the ways that the market demanded. Consequently, it was right to treat both as objects by which to profit and “as enemies” who needed to be disciplined and controlled.
That the City’s scheme and the neoliberal logic behind it would create the circumstances that led to Michael Brown’s death is clear. Indeed, through that scheme Ferguson officials and the police department produced a “‘state of exception,’ wherein…exceptional violence” – i.e.., violence that shocks, that “elicits a deep emotional response” – was “transformed into exemplary violence,” into violence that “forms the rule,” and particularly for those excluded and abandoned. Without social media, Brown’s death would have merely been a part of the everyday violence that police directed at Ferguson’s African American community and poor people generally, violence made increasingly likely by the market driven imperative of the Ferguson police force. And of course Brown’s death took place against the backdrop of the invisible violence of the City’s neoliberal policies (creation of unequal and increasingly privatized schools, attraction of business that paid little taxes and employed workers at low wages, privatization of public services, etc.).
If Officer Yanez worked under a governmental scheme similar to the one in Ferguson, then in that moment when he pulled the trigger (four or five times) he embodied, expressed and enacted the neoliberal principles and logic by which his department and his city operate.
But let’s suppose that the St. Anthony Police Department is not a business enterprise disguised as a police department, made so at the behest of city officials. Does that change the conclusion?
We live in the context of a global neoliberal order. And to a frightening degree, “we have become entrepreneurs of our lives,” as Johanna Oksala writes, “competing in the free market called society.” Indeed, we “compete in an ever-expanding range of fields, and invest in ourselves by enhancing our abilities and appearance, by improving our strategies of life coaching and time management. Our life has become an enterprise that we must lead to success.”
In other words, we are all neoliberals now, and as Springer argues, all of us are “implicated in the perpetuation of neoliberalised violence.”
A few months ago, I complained to my partner that the preschool our three-year old attends had not yet taught her the alphabet and numbers – at least not in any way that in my mind reflected academic rigor. “How is she going to succeed?” I asked. “When she gets to kindergarten, all the other kids will be way ahead.” I was ready to pull her out and send her to a school with a more disciplined, focused program, one that would lead to her academic success and, eventually, her career success. Lurking in the back of my mind was the fate of black girls, who have very little the market recognizes as valuable.
Let me repeat: my daughter is three. She attends a school in which learning happens outdoors – in a forest – where the kids discover things like rabbits and tadpoles and swarms of ladybugs and dead birds and, from those things, learn about habitats and camouflage and metamorphosis and death.
Against a neoliberal, market-driven idea of education – one that permeates the public sphere and that has redefined the purpose of school and education – I measured this wide-open, wonderful way of learning and found it wanting. Without even thinking about it, I was ready to subject my three-year old to the disciplinary logic of a neoliberal education and thus to perform an act, the violence of which (to creativity, to learning) I could not see.
Even if Officer Yanez had not performed his duty in accordance with the kind of policies that guided Ferguson’s police department, he nevertheless killed Philando within the context of a broader neoliberal framework that marked men like Philando as always already outside of neoliberal normativity (black male + broke ass car = enemy) and denied them any claim to the neoliberal virtues of economic self-sufficiency and possessive individualism. As to the latter, black people throughout United States history have been cast as anything but a collection of individuals. Instead, we are a monolith that can be used and disposed of at will (hence, Dallas police killer Micah Xavier Johnson is not Micah Xavier Johnson as such; instead, he is Black Lives Matter).
Moreover, that broader neoliberal framework, which defines (in the words of Lester Spence) “freedom in market terms rather than political terms,” is a racial capitalist framework that defines African Americans as unfree Others in order to naturalize class hierarchies. Thus, when Officer Yanez encountered Philando, he encountered an unfree Other who – in spite of that mark – had the audacity to claim the status of a free person by openly carrying a gun. Officer Yanez encountered the enemy.
My point in all of this is that Officer Yanez – like all of us, like me – was (is) immersed in neoliberalism and inevitably internalized as well as reproduced it in his employment life (and probably in his personal life as well). He was armed with it, so to speak, when he encountered and then killed Philando Castile, and I suspect this was true as well for Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri.
Finally, even if St. Anthony’s had not been blatantly transformed into a business enterprise, it nevertheless operates within a national and global paradigm of policing that aligns police with the interests of capital. As Oksala notes, governments throughout the world have adopted policies and practices designed to “intervene in the very being of society in order to make competition the dominant principle for guiding human behavior,” and to “give competition between enterprises and entrepreneurial conduct maximum range.” These policies and practices proceed from the understanding that maintaining these conditions for capital requires “objective, extensive and efficient state-violence,” i.e., “effective practices of policing.” They proceed from the understanding, in other words, that such violence is and must be “inherent to neoliberal governmentality.” When Officer Yanez approached and killed Philando, then, the police department for which he worked was hardly operating outside of this paradigm.
If what we are witnessing in these violent encounters with police is neoliberalism in action, then we have to come up with an entirely different set of solutions to change policing. This is not to dismiss body cameras and training, which will no doubt save some lives. But they are technical fixes that do not address at all the neoliberal character of our police departments, the transformation of peace officers into neoliberal police, the policies that align policing with corporate power, and the violence that neoliberalism produces.
In fact, these fixes amount to our use of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. After all, through neoliberal policies governments regularly take “outside of the realm of the political” the myriad problems that communities face and then render these problems “technical and actionable,” as Lester Spence has observed. So when we offer solutions like body cameras, we make fixing the police a technical matter rather than a political matter, and in so doing we legitimize and further entrench neoliberal policies and practices that enact invisible, spectacular, and ultimately normalized violence on those who don’t fit the mold. The consequence is that we’ll continue to receive tweets and Facebook feeds of police killings.
But we’ll also see more retaliatory killings of police officers – like the killings that occurred recently in Dallas and Baton Rouge – as more people realize that neoliberal policing, and the violence it enacts, is exactly the kind of policing our governments intend. Such counter-violence, however, is extraordinarily ironic, for individuals who engage in retaliatory killings – individuals who are, and will likely continue to be, primarily men – ultimately express just how deeply they have internalized the ideals and attributes that constitute the Virtuous Neoliberal Citizen: self-reliance or rugged individualism, personal responsibility, distrust of government, efficiency, cruelty. With an Izhmash-Saiga 5.45 mm rifle or some other AK-style weapon in tow, they alone will fix the problem of police violence, and in so doing, they will precisely, and finally, fit the neoliberal mold.
Repairing the police and our system of policing, then, clearly demands that we end not only neoliberal policing, but also the transformation of men and women into neoliberal police. To do this, we must relentlessly break down these moments of violence between officers and the community in order to unearth the neoliberal politics they express and enact, and that our government officials (local, state, national) continue to impose upon us at our expense (and for the benefit of the wealthy), but most especially at the expense of our abandoned, disposed children, women and men.
It is through this kind of work, in fact, that we can begin to upend an order that neoliberal proponents present as the only alternative and that appears all-powerful and all-encompassing. By doing this work, we’ll discover just how much neoliberalism and the violence it produces is, as Oksala makes clear, a “specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing” – including the hiring, training, management and oversight of police – that we absolutely have the power to change.
This article also appears in CounterPunch.
“It’s okay, mommy.”
I can’t stop thinking about Dae’Anna – Diamond Reynold‘s four year-old daughter who was in the car when police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile, Reynold’s boyfriend. Specifically, I can’t stop thinking about Dae’Anna’s words to her mom as her mom broke down crying while sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car: “It’s okay mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
I have a three-year old who crawls in bed with me whenever I am incapacitated with the pain of a migraine. She lies on my chest, kisses my face and says “It’s okay, momma.” I know that in such moments she is terribly afraid, and that it hurts her deeply to see her momma in such agony. So when I heard Dae’Anna comfort her mother during that incredibly violent, horrific event, I was not surprised, and I knew in my heart of hearts that not only was Dae’Anna unimaginably afraid; she was also in great pain – for her mother, for Philando, for herself. Maybe even for Officer Yanez.
She was also frighteningly vulnerable.
In my heart of hearts I also know that the violence suffered and perpetrated by adults must be answered by turning toward Dae’Anna – toward little black girls and other girls of color everywhere, especially those who are poor – and asking: what is required of us to make the world safe for you? What must we do to ensure that little girls never have to turn to mothers who are forced to flee war, to flee men, who suffer poverty and racism, who suffer through the violence of routine traffic stops and the funerals of kin cut down in the prime of life by state-sanctioned and private acts of violence and say, “It’s okay, mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you”?
We turn to them for our answers because it is clear that to resolve the question of their safety and well-being, and (by extension) that of the entire planet, is to commit unhesitatingly to a political, economic, and spiritual revolution that will completely upend the structural and gendered violence by which our society – all of it – is organized and in which all of us are immersed. To turn toward our little girls is to examine, through their eyes, what we have built and to see without blinders the shitty ways we recreate the very circumstances that force them – the most vulnerable in our society – to be their mothers’ comfort and keepers in the midst of violence (slow and fast, visible and invisible) that is also their own trauma and inheritance.
Indeed, if we can ever get to the point where we can say that our girls are safe and thriving — that society is right and just — it will be because we will have courageously and selflessly undertook the labor of radically transforming everything, every damn thing, from the bottom-up. It will be because we will have put to rest the very logic that has created a society that not only renders black people disposable; but that also renders violence “the most important tool of power” as well as “the mediating force” – to use the words of Henry Giroux – “in shaping social relationships.”
Ultimately, if we can ever say that our girls are safe and thriving, it will be because we had come to understand that the meaning and measure of a just society could have only been defined in terms of the needs and care of the least of these. We would have finally understood that this inescapable network of violence (racism, neoliberalism, militarism) — of which war, gun violence (nay, the very ownership of guns) as well as racist, militaristic policing are the articulate expressions — could never have been tweaked or refined or perfected enough to coexist with justice, and that it could have only guaranteed that four year-old black and brown girls would forever be witnesses to, and thus victims of, the horrors it inevitably produces.
So let’s transform the words “It’s okay mommy” into a subversive call to action, into a promise we make to our little girls, and thus to ourselves, that we will transform this world into one where we all – but most especially they – will be absolutely okay.
TOWARD A NONVIOLENT DEMOCRACY: BERNIE SANDERS’ RACIAL JUSTICE PLATFORM
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
That foreign policy speech
Buried deep in the trenches of President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point yesterday sits this little gem, one pundits on the whole are sure to overlook but one I thought deserves our attention: America stands (the president proclaimed) “for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity for people everywhere.”
To be sure, this statement is American jingoism at its best, but it made me wonder: had this been President Obama’s opening shot, the first words to float elegantly out of his mouth, what direction would his speech have taken, and just what kind of foreign policy doctrine would have unfolded?
Starting with this gem, it seems to me that he would have actually had to explain more precisely just what he meant. Imagine with me, if you will, that he would have found apropos the words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
The audacity to believe.
Imagine with me further the president speaking from his audacity to believe that any foreign policy worth pursuing is one that starts from the bottom, that is, from the perspective of those who go without one meal a day, let alone three; of those for whom education is a luxury, and a decent education – a dream; of those whose spirits are run down by the greedy, the cynical, the uncaring, the bigoted, the hateful. And of those who face daily the ravages of war, of drone attacks that, with great “certainty,” could have only produced “civilian casualties.”
Such a foreign policy, I imagine, would speak to the terrorism of hunger – would frame it, in fact, as “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad.” It would proclaim the absolute capacity we and “our partners” have to eradicate poverty everywhere. And it would speak to that terrorism because it would pose these questions: what do those on the bottom need in order to live without violence, without hunger? What do they need in order to live full lives, free of domination, inequality, injustice? It would assume that the first order of business with any nation is to ask, are your people doing well? Do they have enough to eat? What can we do to help?
Such a policy would, without hesitation, name nonviolence as its guiding principle – not just peace, but nonviolence, an active, purposeful commitment to real peace at home and abroad. Which means that the policy would presuppose the necessity of disarming our own citizens, of removing assault weapons from our closets and sock drawers, of making sure that violence in Chicago or Santa Barbara would be a thing of the past.
Listen as President Obama re-orders what he referred to in his speech as “elements” of “American leadership.” Instead of offering to us as the “fourth and final element” our “willingness to act on human dignity,” he offers it instead as the first.
From there, of course, he would have to talk forthrightly about Guantanamo, that travesty of justice begun during the Bush II years and shamefully extended into the second term of Obama’s own presidency. “Our own government,” he’d have the audacity to say, “has demonstrated a stunning disrespect for human rights,” and the “force feeding that I have condoned and which I will end today” has fed “instability” as well as “the grievances that fuel violence and terror.” He would admit that it is no longer good enough for him to simply say [as he did in his speech] that “I will continue to push to close GTMO.”
But that’s not the speech or policy that we got from President Obama, whose audacity to hope has never quite translated into audacity. What we got instead is a foreign policy in which “opportunity for people everywhere” is just a passing thought, and “human dignity” is a bookend to a doctrine where “terrorism,” and not the unmet needs of people everywhere, figures as America’s number one threat.