Introduction to afro-pessimism: The avant-garde of white supemacy by Steve Martinot & Jared Sexton

In 1998, Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, a national conference and strategy-session, re-posed the question of the relations between white supremacy and state violence. Fascism was the concept often used to link these two terms and the prison industrial complex was considered to be its quintessential practice. The political-intellectual discourse generated at and around Critical Resistance shattered the narrow definitions of racism that characterize many conventional (even leftist) accounts
and produced instead a space for rethinking radical alternatives.This sort of shift in the political landscape has been imperative fora long time now. The police murder of Amadou Diallo comes to mind as an event requiring such re-conceptualization. The Diallo killing was really plural since it involved other police murders as imminent in the same event. Diallo’s killing was plural beyond his own many deaths in those few seconds, a killing that took place in the eyes of his friends and family from as far away as Guinea. In the immediate wake of his killers’ acquittals, the NYPD murdered Malcolm Ferguson, a community organizer who had been active in attempting to get justice for Diallo. (The police harassed the Ferguson’s within the next year and arrested his brother on
trumped up charges.) Two weeks after Ferguson’s murder, the police killed Patrick Dorismund because he refused to buy drugs from an undercover cop, because he fought back when the cop attacked. The police then harassed and attacked Dorismund’s funeral procession in Brooklyn a week later, hospitalizing several in attendance. (The police took the vendetta all the way to the grave.) Tyisha Miller was murdered in her car in Riverside, California by four cops who knocked on the window of her car and found that she simply didn’t respond. Angela Davis tells the story of “Tanya Haggerty in Chicago, whose cell phone was the potential weapon that allowed police to justify her killing,” just as Daillo’s wallet was the “gun” at which four cops fired in unison. To the police, a wallet in the hand of black man is a gun whereas that same wallet in the hand of a white man is just a wallet. A cell phone in the hands of a black woman is a gun; that same phone
in a white woman’s hand is a cell phone.There were local movements in each of these cities to protest acts of police murder and in each case the respective city governments
were solicited to take appropriate action. Under convention aldefinitions of the government, we seem to be restricted to calling upon it for protection from its own agents. But what are we doing when we demonstrate against police brutality, and find
ourselves tacitly calling upon the government to help us do so? These notions of the state as the arbiter of justice and the police as the unaccountable arbiters of lethal violence are two sides of the same coin. Narrow understandings of mere racism are
proving themselves impoverished because they cannot see this fundamental relationship. What is needed is the development of a radical critique of the structure of the coin. There are two possibilities: first, police violence is a deviation from the rules governing police procedures in general. Second, these various forms of violence (e.g., racial profiling, street murders, terrorism) are the rule itself as standard operation procedure. For instance, when the protest movements made public statements they expressed an understanding of police violence as the rule of the day and not as a shocking exception. However, when it came time to formulate practical proposals to change the fundamental nature of policing, all they could come up with concretely were more oversight committees, litigation, and civilian review boards (“with teeth”), none of which lived up to the collective intuition about what the police were actually doing. The protest movements’ readings of these events didn’t seem able to bridge the gap to the programmatic. The language in which we articulate our analyses doesn’t seem to allow for alternatives in practice. Even those who take seriously the second possibility (violence as a rule) find that the language of alternatives and the terms of relevance are constantly dragged into the political discourse they seek to oppose, namely, that the system works and is capable of reform. After the exposure of the LAPD’s videotaped beating of Rodney King, after the rebellions of 1992, police violence only became more rampant and more brazen across the country. After the Justice for Diallo” movement in NYC, the police murders multiplied, and police arrogance increased. It was as if the anti-racist campaigns (or uprisings) against police violence were co-opted by the police to augment their violence, rather than effectively closing it down as they had explicitly intended. In the wake of countless exposés, the prison industrial complex has only expanded; the reportage on the racist operations of capital punishment and the legal system more generally have become absorbed in the acceleration of execution rates. Why do things get worse after each hard fought revelation? Where do we locate the genius of the system? Something is left out of the account; it runs through our fingers, escaping our grasp.If the spectacle of police violence does, in fact, operate according to a rule of its own (as the anti-violence movements argue), what does this suggest about the social institutions that generate it and which it represents despite persistent official disavowals? First, the relationship between police violence and the social institution
of policing is structural, rather than incidental or contingent (i.e., an unfortunate but minor part of the job). Second, the cultural content of the actual policing that we face is to be a law unto itself, not the socially responsible institution it claims to be in its disavowals. Third, a question: is this paradigm of policing a methodology for a form of social organization? If so, of what are the police the avant-garde?They prowl, categorizing and profiling, often turning those profiles into murderous violence without (serious) fear of being called to account, all the while claiming impunity. What jars the imagination is not the fact of impunity itself, but the realization that they are simply people working a job, a job they secured by making an application at the personnel office. In events such as the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the true excessiveness is not in
the massiveness of the shooting, but in the fact that these cops were there on the street looking for this event in the first place, as a matter of routine business. This spectacular evil is encased in a more inarticulable evil of banality, namely, that the state assigns
certain individuals to (well-paying) jobs as hunters of human beings, a furtive protocol for which this shooting is simply the effect. But they do more than prowl. They make problematic the whole notion of social responsibility such that we no longer know if the police are responsible to the judiciary and local administration or if the city is actually responsible to them, duty bound by impunity itself. To the extent to which the police are a law unto themselves, the latter would have to be the case. This unaccountable vector
of inverted social responsibility would resonate in the operating procedures in upper levels of civil administration as well. That is, civil governmental structures would act in accordance with the paradigm of policing—wanton violence legitimized by strict
conformity to procedural regulations.For instance, consider the recent case of a 12 year-old African-American boy sentenced to prison for life without parole for having killed a 6 year-old African-American girl while acting out the moves he had seen in professional wrestling matches on TV. In demanding this sentence, the prosecutor argued that the boy
was a permanent menace to society, and had killed the girl out of extreme malice and consciousness of what he was doing. A 12 year-old child, yet Lionel Tate was given life without parole. In the name of social sanctity, the judicial system successfully
terrorized yet another human being, his friends, and relatives by carrying its proceduralism to the limit. The corporate media did the rest; several “commentators” ridiculed Tate’s claim to have imitated wrestling moves, rewriting his statement as a disreputable excuse: “pro wrestling made me do it” (San Francisco Chronicle,
3/25/01). Thus, they transformed his naïve awareness of bodies into intentional weaponry and cunning. One could surmise, with greater justification than surmising the malice of the child, that the prosecutor made a significant career step by getting this high profile conviction. Beyond the promotion he would secure for a job well done, beyond the mechanical performance of official outrage and the cynicism exhibited in playing the role, what animus drove the prosecutor to demand such a sentence? In the face of the prosecution’s sanctimonious excess, those who bear witness to Tate’s suffering have only inarticulate outrage to offer as consolation. With recourse only to the usual rhetorical
expletives about racism, the procedural ritualism of this white supremacist operation has confronted them with the absence of a real means of discerning the judiciary’s dissimulated machinations. The prosecutor was the banal functionary of a civil structure, a paradigmatic exercise of wanton violence that parades as moral rectitude but whose source is the paradigm of policing. All attempts to explain the malicious standard operating procedure of US white supremacy find themselves hamstrung by conceptual inadequacy; it remains describable, but not comprehensible. The story can be told, as the 41 bullets fired to slaughter Diallo can be counted, but the ethical meaning
remains beyond the discursive resources of civil society, outside the framework for thinkable thought.It is, of course, possible to speak out against such white supremacist violence as immoral, as illegal, even unconstitutional. But the impossibility of thinking through to the ethical dimension has a hidden structural effect. For those who are not racially profiled or tortured when arrested, who are not tried and sentenced
with the presumption of guilt, who are not shot reaching for their identification, all of this is imminently ignorable. Between the inability to see and the refusal to acknowledge, a mode of social organization is being cultivated for which the paradigm of policing is the cutting edge. We shall have to look beyond racialized police violence to see its logic.The impunity of racist police violence is the first implication ofits ignorability to white civil society. The ignorability of police impunity is what renders it inarticulable outside of that hegemonic formation. If ethics is possible for white civil society within its
social discourses, it is rendered irrelevant to the systematic violence deployed against the outside precisely because it is ignorable. Indeed, that ignorability becomes the condition of possibility for the ethical coherence of the inside. The dichotomy between a white ethical dimension and its irrelevance to the violence of police profiling is the very structure of racialization today. It is a twin structure, a regime of violence that operates in two registers, terror and the seduction into the fraudulent ethics of social order;
a double economy of terror, structured by a ritual of incessant performance. And into the gap between them, common sense, which cannot account for the double register or twin structure of this ritual, disappears into incomprehensibility. The language of
common sense, through which we bespeak our social world in the most common way, leaves us speechless before the enormity of the usual, of the business of civil procedures.

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