On climate change and domination: Some thoughts on the Baton Rouge police protests, policing and rain
Many of us are no doubt familiar with the image, captured by photographer Jonathan Bachman, of Ieshia Evans as she faced Baton Rouge’s police during a peaceful protest this past July against the police killing of Alton Sterling. Clad in a light, airy sundress on that hot and muggy midsummer day, Ieshia stands her ground as the police move in to arrest her. A far cry from the riot gear in which the officers themselves are clad, the sundress in which Ieshia is clothed underscores both her vulnerability and her power. To stand against such a militarized force, knowing the violence with which it is capable, reveals an inner fortitude on her part that exposes the force’s own vulnerability, the kind unmasked when people resist injustice.
What Ieshia is also standing against, however (though she cannot yet see it, nor can we), is an impending rain storm – and not just any rain storm, but one that will dump 7.1 trillion gallons of water over the Gulf Coast, displace nearly 30,000 humans, take the lives of thirteen, destroy tens of thousands of homes, and visit similar, if not worse destruction on the lives and habitats of untold nonhuman life forms in Louisiana.
Indeed, this was a special storm, for as climate scientists recently concluded, it was “made more likely because of climate change.” That is, it was made more likely because “humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere” through our “rampant use of fossil fuels.” Since the 1860s, we – or more accurately, the global North – have “spewed into the atmosphere” over 500 billion tons of “human-generated greenhouse gases” (primarily carbon dioxide) that are trapping heat near Earth’s surface and are thus causing Earth’s average temperatures to rise (between “1880 and 1990, the global North was responsible for 84 percent of all fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions and 75 percent of all deforestation-related carbon dioxide emissions”). This global warming is creating the kinds of conditions that increase the probability that weather events like the Gulf’s August three-day rainfall will occur more often – “40 percent more often” – than “in our preindustrial past.” We can now expect to see such “extreme weather events” in the Gulf region once every thirty years – maybe “even more.”
I offer the image of Ieshia Evans standing against the Baton Rouge police while she (and many others) simultaneously stands against the Gulf storm not only because it is crucial to see that both the policing of African Americans and climate change share a particular history; but also because that shared history requires us to see our carbon-laden atmosphere itself as domination – domination powered, to a great extent, by the pursuit of policies and practices (including unjust policing) done to (though increasingly by) people of color as well as to seen and unseen nonhuman life forms, all for the benefit of the few, but most especially for those of the global North.
Like Baton Rouge policing, climate change was, as Chris J. Cuomo reminds us, “manufactured in a crucible of inequality.” In particular, it is “a product of the industrial and the fossil-fuel eras, historical forces powered by exploitation, colonialism,” Jim Crowism, and “nearly limitless instrumental use of ‘nature.’” In other words, the colonial powers of the global North made the planet hotter as they transformed the “subsistence economies” of the global South “into economic satellites of Europe” and, in the process, “wreaked havoc on the peoples and environments of the colonized territories.”
Climate change, of course, continues to be manufactured within a “crucible of inequality,” for it proceeds unabated within and on behalf of a “’colonial power matrix,’” within, that is, the “‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism’” –“anthropocentric, androcentric, heterosexist, rationalist, Euro/Western-centric, modern/colonial, racialized, industrialist/developmentalist, capitalist, and ableist” – and to which the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is absolutely crucial. Powered by seemingly endless military adventures and neoliberal economic policies, as well as by policies embraced by elites in the global South to raise their societies’ standard of living, global warming proceeds apace. Carbon dioxide concentrations (currently a little over 400 parts-per-million) are “now greater than at any time during the past 800,000 years,” and Earth’s temperature is fast approaching 2°C, the surpassing of which will be catastrophic for the entire planet.
Considered in light of this history and this present moment of “coloniality,” i.e., a moment in which colonial forms of power persist, our “dramatically altered” global atmosphere is, in a very real sense, an atmosphere of domination, one that is intentionally imposed upon us all and that makes “extreme weather events” – whether rain or snow or heat or wind – the continued felt experience, by all forms of life, of human acts of exploitation and violence that produced, and continues to produce, a warmer Earth.
The colonial power matrix, in other words, is literally in the air.
Although we did not notice it, it was as much in the air as it was on the ground the moment Ieshia Evans stood against the police and against the crucial role that policing plays, all over the globe, in creating the crucible of inequality out of which climate changed is manufactured.
It was also in the air in that moment when G4S – the private security team hired by Dakota Access, LLC – set its dogs on the Standing Rock Sioux, who had been standing and continue to stand firm to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on their land because the pipeline (the tribe contends) will contaminate their drinking water, destroy or harm sacred sites, and ultimately contribute to climate change. It was in the air when machine gun-wielding and riot-outfitted local police descended upon and arrested pipeline protesters. And it was in the air during the military checkpoints conducted by the National Guard deployed “on the outskirts of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.”
Though the Baton Rouge and pipeline protests concern different issues, the remarkable confluence of policing at both tells us a great deal not only about how the atmosphere gets constituted as domination; but also about the degree to which addressing and mitigating climate change is inseparable from confronting and dismantling the kind of structural injustices that we see in the policing of black and other communities of color.
So, for instance, if you look closely (with 400 parts-per-million of carbon in mind) at the pipeline confrontations, you just might see that the radically altered atmosphere in which they take place is actually a thing that G4S, the local police, and the National Guard defend. For it is not the mere construction of a pipeline that the private and state security forces hope to safeguard for Dakota Pipeline, LLC and other corporate interests; it is, more critically, the actual burning of fossil fuels and thus the manufacture of a chemically altered atmosphere – because therein lies the profit.
In other words, G4S, the local police, and the National Guard serve private interests (G4S also guards the BP pipeline in Colombia; the Basrah Gas Company in Iraq; “emergency vessels operating in the Niger Delta for Chevron” – you get the picture) in pursuit of a project that requires the exploitation of Native lands, the repression of the Sioux, the fouling of natural resources and, finally, the burning of fossil fuels. The Dakota Access pipeline, then, is a project in which global warming is the necessary end result.
But the damn Sioux are in the fucking way. Again.
The police in Baton Rouge – a force that is the legacy of Jim Crow – are not any less aligned with fossil fuel interests. They operate, after all, in a state committed (with federal support) to the drilling, extraction, and burning of fossil fuels – all with full knowledge that these activities will warm the earth.
Thus, in spite of the destruction that the Gulf rains caused Baton Rouge – a majority black city where almost 25% of the population lives below the poverty rate, and where the median household income is approximately $39,000 – the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nevertheless moved forward to auction off “for fossil fuel drilling and exploration” an area in the Gulf that is “the size of Virginia.” This auction occurred just a month after the rains. And although hundreds of outraged Gulf coast residents descended on New Orleans to shut down the sale, which took place at the Superdome (the very site where New Orleans residents sought refuge when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina), the sale proceeded. Protestors were arrested, leases were secured, and global temperatures continued to rise at record-breaking levels.
So what we witnessed in Baton Rouge on those three stormy days in August was rain, certainly; but it was also rain bearing the imprint of a politics of exploitation, such that it was the felt experience of a history of domination and of a present marked by the continued exploitation of Earth, of nonhuman life forms, and of the poor, especially those in formerly colonized nations. That same imprint is what we see in the photo of the police/Ieshia Evans encounter, where the police appear like an impending storm that will soon overtake a woman – defiant and unyielding – clad in an light and airy sundress.
What kind of justice can be achieved within a context – within a matrix, that is, where the state/police is aligned with corporations in their pursuit of fossil fuel profits and power at the expense of all life on Earth, and with little or no regard for the particular ways climate catastrophes – very likely produced by our radically altered atmosphere – impact communities of color the world over? Indeed, what is justice under a such a regime?
And to what degree is the state violence that is directed against African Americans and against the Sioux – the cold-blooded police murders of men like Terence Crutcher – a measure of our nation’s unwillingness to do all that is necessary to address climate change? How is it even possible to meet the demands of our climate crisis without undertaking a radical politics of decoloniality, without speaking everywhere and all the time of our altered climate – and even our “extreme weather events” – in terms that conjure (for example) conquest, colonialism, settlers, genocide, apartheid, indentured servitude, rape, Bantustans, Jim Crow, racial segregation, annexation, partition, national liberation, neocolonialism, western-propped dictatorships, proxy wars, neoliberalism, policing, regime change? Who living within our oppressive atmosphere can afford to be, or remain invested in, the murderous, nihilistic colonial power matrix that is driving millions of life forms to extinction?
And how can we not stand against it (and thus against our own complicity) by standing with the Ieshias and Siouxs of our warming planet, who by resisting those for whom the colonial power matrix is worth maintaining – even if it will destroy life on earth as we know it – increasingly face repression, displacement, imprisonment and even death? How?
Shifting focus: Mizzou and those racist students
While the student protests at the University of Missouri continue to be dissected, analyzed, and judged, we might want to direct our attention to the folks who – remarkably enough – have not been thus far the subject of much debate and critique: those white students who shouted racial slurs at Peyton Head as he walked near campus, the drive-by racists who shouted “nigger” at the Legion of Black Collegians while they practiced for homecoming, and the other faceless, nameless students who engaged in racist conduct (we might also want to include the silent white assenters – students, faculty, staff – as well as any onlookers who stood on the sidelines and maybe even laughed or otherwise encouraged their colleagues).
It is not enough merely to call these students or their acts “racist” and their words “hate speech,” to speak only of epithets and hurt feelings, to evoke the First Amendment (while forgetting the Fourteenth), and then to turn and launch extended critiques of “political correctness” on the part of those protesting (a “political correctness” that we must – if we are honest with ourselves – see as, in part, an outgrowth of the heavier burden of free speech that some communities are forced to bear).
Instead, or perhaps primarily, we should be wondering out loud, and without distraction: what are these students trying to do? What do they hope to achieve?
It seems to me that one of the things that they are trying to do is to speak as, and on behalf of Mizzou – with the full power of the institution behind them. Or to put this differently: I suspect these racist students (and others) presume that Mizzou is the institutionalization of a particular kind of white power and privilege, and that because they are white and because they are Mizzou, then when they speak the language of racism and white power as well as engage in racist conduct, they are merely being Mizzou itself. And in being Mizzou, they hope to impress upon students of color, and African American students in particular, that they can never be Mizzou and thus can never embody and exercise power – on campus or anywhere else. No, power belongs to, and can only be exercised by whites and whites only.
If I am right, and I suspect that I’m a little right, then we need to ask whether the University of Missouri – the governing body, administration, staff, and faculty – give white students such as these every reason to believe that they and Mizzou are of one mind and one body. For if this is the case – and I suspect that this is the case – the resignation of Tim Wolfe will hardly suffice. Indeed, what will be required is nothing less than Mizzou’s radical transformation – its mission, its governance, its admissions policies and criteria, its hiring, its faculty, its student body – and, by extension, the entire state of Missouri itself.
Nonviolence media black-out
Over the course of the recent Baltimore protests concerning Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police, I received (as did many people I know) several Facebook posts and tweets of pictures that captured what the mass media failed or flat-out refused to cover: the nonviolent protests that took place throughout the city. Those who shared these posts and tweets lamented not only the media black-out of nonviolent protests, but also the media’s absolute focus on violence and violent protests – the looting, the torching of police vehicles, the hurling of bottles and bricks.
As those who shared their posts and tweets noted, the media used the images of violence to narrate the protests not as a story about the brutality that Freddy Gray suffered or about the decades of police repression under which Baltimore’s poor African American citizens have lived or about the grinding poverty that is the lived experience of the community where Freddy Gray grew up (“Baltimore City,” the New York Times recently reported, “is extremely bad for income mobility for children in poor families. It is among the worst counties in the U.S.”). Instead, the media used the images of violence to present Baltimore’s hurt and outraged African Americans as criminals or thugs, as a people so irrational that they would burn down “their own” community – as a people, in fact, who predictably produced a stressed and beleaguered Baltimore police force that has “understandably” resorted to excessive force.
Into this narrative of African American violence the media weaved government officials’ calls for nonviolence – which, as I have argued elsewhere, are nothing less than an appropriation of nonviolence to forward state interests, an appropriation through which officials render nonviolence the language of empire. When the media, then, marginalized the nonviolence on the streets and yet featured officials’ calls for nonviolence, it in essence blacked-out the expression of nonviolence as a radical call for justice and for systemic change. Moreover, it disconnected the violence that it spotlighted from the broader demand and movement for an end to state-sponsored violence (whether in the form of police brutality or economic policies) and, ultimately, from the government’s own unchecked acts of violence.
And yet, we do have those pictures posted on Facebook and Twitter. Clearly, our camera phones will be just as crucial to reframing nonviolence and disrupting both the government’s and media’s narrative of it as they are to capturing police agression and brutality.
Non-violence as Non-Compliance
Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed that “when the white power structure calls upon the Negro to reject violence but does not impose upon itself the task of creating necessary social change, it is in fact asking for submission to injustice. Nothing in the theory of nonviolence counsels this suicidal course.” The “simple fact is,” King continued, “that there cannot be nonviolence and tranquility, without significant reforms of the evils that endangered the peace in the first place. It is the effort of the power structure to benefit from nonviolence without yielding meaningful change that is responsible for the rise of elements who would discredit it.”
King’s spot-on observation about the “power structure’s” calls for nonviolence clearly remains relevant, for it captured what public officials and other elites were up to when they called for nonviolence during the Ferguson and New York protests, just as it describes – as Ta-Nehisi Coates so powerfully argues in “Nonviolence as Compliance” – what Maryland and other officials were up to when they demanded nonviolence or “peace” from folks righteously outraged by the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police.
Indeed, given officials’ general indifference to the violence that Baltimore police have, for decades, meted out to the city’s black citizens, it is hard not to conclude – even after Baltimore’s chief prosecutor announced criminal charges against six officers for Gray’s death – that officials have no intention whatsoever of adopting “significant reforms of the evils that endangered the peace in the first place,” and that their calls for nonviolence are nothing less than demands for political/moral/ethical quietism in the face of state-sponsored violence. Thus, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ conclusion that “when nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse,” seems absolutely on target.
But it only seems on target, for Coates’ conclusion actually veers away from the deeper problem with officials’ calls for nonviolence and that King identified in his concluding statement: the “power structure’s” appropriation or capture of the discourse on nonviolence in order to forward its own interests – a capture that ultimately discredits nonviolence both as a philosophy and as a method with which to confront power and to obtain justice.
Nonviolence is not the problem, but officials’ nonviolence certainly is.
What’s even more problematic, however, is that proponents of nonviolence have utterly failed to appreciate and confront this appropriation. Consequently, because they don’t face any significant push-back, government officials have had a free hand not only to redefine nonviolence in terms compatible with government interests; but also to reframe the very meaning of nonviolent protest – which, in their terms, is nothing less than “peaceful protest,” i.e., protest that leaves undisturbed government and business property, as well as the political choices and the consciences of those in power. In the process, officials offer the government as the primary champion of peace and justice, one that stands against the angry, “irrational” protesting “thugs” on the street.
No wonder activists and critics like Coates conclude that nonviolence, and not officials’ appropriation of the creed, “reveals itself to be a con.”
Clearly, this appropriation requires from those who are committed to nonviolence a swift and powerful response. But where to begin? Proponents could start by addressing what makes the government’s capture of nonviolence (and critics’ rejection of nonviolence) so easy and seamless in the first place: the reduction of nonviolence to strategy and tactics, as well as the longstanding tentativeness on the part of nonviolence advocates to speak nonviolence in transformative terms – transformative for the individual practitioner, transformative for perpetrators of hate, violence, and injustice, and transformative of the established order. In other words, proponents have become reluctant – in the context of protests and movement organizing – to assert that nonviolence is more than a protest strategy, that it is indeed, as King constantly declared (and that is conveniently left out of critiques of nonviolence), a call to practice radical love both politically and personally as the basis for effecting a “radical restructuring” of American society and beyond.
Let’s be clear: nonviolence has never been merely a way to conduct protests. To so conclude is to avoid the hard work that nonviolence as a way of life requires. And it is not, as officials would have it, synonymous with order (as President Obama suggested when he stated in his plea for nonviolence during the Ferguson protests that “using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to the rule of law and contrary to who we are” – as if the “rule of law” wasn’t itself violence that needed to be confronted). Instead, nonviolence is a practice of love that dis-orders the status quo, disrupts it in order to expose as well as to transform the hate, injustice and violence with which it is maintained.
In fact, it is inherently noncompliant because it perceives order or status quo peace where injustice prevails as violence in and of itself. And it proceeds from the understanding that any pretense to nonviolence on the part of the government is, without the government’s true commitment to the creed, a ruse by which it protects its continued investment in force, unchecked power and injustice.
Hesitance about articulating the radical dimensions and deeper commitment of nonviolence has plagued nonviolent direct action in this country for some time now – indeed, it has plagued much of social justice organizing, even as this organizing has been driven by tremendous faith and hope in a world free from violence (as the hashtag BlackLivesMatter, for example, absolutely expresses). The consequence is that nonviolence has become an empty concept, or is at least empty of anything that troubles our hearts and minds (as government officials’ appropriation makes clear). In so being, it is ripe for capture by those in power and easy to reject by social justice advocates.
By reclaiming the transformative and taking control of the discourse on nonviolence, proponents of nonviolence can begin to dis-identify the creed from the “power structure” since, after all, it is the transformative – our calls for radical change – that officials and other elites hope to suppress. And why not? As Palestinian activist Jean Zaru poignantly clarifies, “nonviolence is threatening to the powers that be because nonviolence undermines their pretense to moral authority… Nonviolence exposes and then challenges the structures of domination and not just the overt symptoms. It then, in turn, requires the oppressor to examine how they, too, are victims of the very violence that they impart.”
But just as critically: advocates of nonviolence must begin to engage, from a political, ethical and moral critique of violence, allies who embrace and advocate for violence as a strategy of resistance. In fact, proponents should abandon all attempts to control or explain such allies (as well as resist efforts on the part of officials and other elites to make nonviolent activists responsible for the violence of others), and instead strategically engage them not as “the unheard” angry (depoliticized) masses, but as political actors who make specific choices that are aligned with their own ideologies.
Finally: proponents of nonviolence will need to address more forcefully, and provide a counternarrative to, the hate and the violence that absolutely drives so much of our domestic and foreign policies – from police brutality to drone strikes.
None of this eclipses direct action. If anything, reclaiming the discourse on nonviolence will inject nonviolent direct action with greater purpose since nonviolence – if it is truly embraced – not only requires, but actually compels one to act, to confront violence and injustice wherever they manifest, because it is ultimately a way of life that constitutes, in King’s words, “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism” – to all systems of subordination and the myriad forms of violence with which these systems are reified and maintained. Nonviolence is a loving refusal to cooperate with violence and injustice everywhere, including (if not especially) in our own minds, in our own homes, and in our own communities.
It is also, I might add, a commitment that one makes to transforming our society from the bottom-up, for it is at the bottom – the barrios, ghettos, favelas, war torn places, refugee camps, and borders – where the full brunt of injustice is felt (which is another way of saying, by the way, that nonviolence is not, by any stretch of the imagination, synonymous with “safety”).
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant analysis is a wake-up call, then, one that reveals just how much we’ve allowed nonviolence to become the language of empire. Now that we’re awake, let’s bring our compliance to an end.