Note II: The Criminalization of Black and Brown Communities and the Latent Riot Against The Neoliberal Order

[The following note on Ferguson is part of a series written by Alvaro Reyes]

If all of the elements mentioned in Note I (anti-blackness, de-industrialization, financialization, gentrification, displacement, increasing inequality, etc.) are particular determinations of the larger situation we are living today in the U.S., it seems that all of them have been slowly congealing—as evidenced today in Ferguson—around the brutal consequences of the criminalization of Black and Latino (of Black and Indigenous descent) communities.[1] That is, despite the “regional” conditions I highlighted in Note 1, it seems to me that the events that took place in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s shooting (protests, rioting, and looting) and their widespread social resonance across the country (with vigils held in 92 cities and over 10 thousand people gathering in New York’s Time Square) are inexplicable outside of the context of a growing awareness that the criminalization of Black and Latino communities has resulted in an intolerable level of police and parapolice violence. This summer alone for example, social media and alternative press outlets were filled with stories on the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police for the infraction of having sold some loose cigarettes,[2] the murder of Renisha McBride for knocking on a door for help after a car accident, and the brutal beating by the California Highway Patrol of Marlene Pinnock for having walked onto an interstate.[3]

Yet, these names are a small part of a much longer list of Black and Brown victims of police and parapolice violence that have entered national consciousness over the years: Oscar Grant[4], Shantel Davis, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, and Israel Hernandez, to name just a few. And those cases of police killings that garner national attention are but the tip of the iceberg of a true epidemic of racialized police violence in the U.S.; according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, one Black person is killed by police every 28 hours and every 36 hours by vigilante and parapolice forces.[5] These statistics, broadly speaking, seem to be corroborated by an analysis published by the daily newspaper USA Today showing thatwhite police officers consistently killed a Black person twice every week between 2005 and 2012 (the years for which data is available), and that Blacks and Latinos are dramatically overrepresented in the 400 people killed by police each year in the U.S. (Note: these startling figures were compiled with only 4% of police agencies in the U.S. actually contributing to the statistics; one can only wonder what the numbers would look like had the Department of Justice enforced existing law and made date collection compulsory).[6]

It is difficult to find a community that remains untouched by this epidemic and that is therefore not responding to it directly. For example, in Durham, North Carolina, from where this note is being written, two prominent police killings have occurred in the past year: the first of Derek Walker and the second of Jesus Ocampo. In another case, a 16-year-old Latino youth (Jesus “Chuy” Huerta) is claimed to have shot himself in the face while handcuffed in the back of a police car.[7] The police reported that Huerta happened to be wearing gloves when holding the gun, and that the police car’s camera had (conveniently) been off at the time. In response, Durham community residents held peaceful vigils and protests seeking justice, with some protestors engaging in direct confrontations with the police in which bricks were thrown and a number of police department windows broken. Yet the situation in Durham seems almost serene when compared to that of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where police have killed 26 people in the last four years (many of them young Latino men). Residents there have protested police conduct for years, reaching the point of conducting cyberattacks, throwing rocks, and even attempting to trap police in their own vehicles. At one such recent protest in Albuquerque (in response to the police killing of a homeless man that was caught on video),[8] one protestor—who was wisely persuaded by others to leave—reportedly pulled an AK-47 from his car yelling that things would only change when the police had a taste of their own medicine.[9] Also, earlier this year in Salinas, California, police killed four Latino men in a matter of a few short weeks (Angel Ruiz, 42 (March 20); Osman Hernandez, 26 (May 9); Carlos Mejia, 44 (May 20); and Frank Alvarado, 39 (July 11)). Residents of Salinas took to the streets in response and maintained over four months of consistent protests, during which they had several direct confrontations with the police that city officials and the press characterized as “rioting.”[10] Then came Ferguson. And relentlessly, even since Mike Brown’s death, a number of other police killings have gained national attention: Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Kajieme Powell in St. Louis,[11] and Victor White who, like Jesus “Chuy” Huerta, is said to have killed himself while handcuffed in the back of a (Louisiana State) police car earlier this year.[12]

The anger expressed against the effects of the criminalization of Black and Latino communities has not been limited to protests around policing killings. An analysis of the scope of this discontent would certainly have to include a recent wave of prison strikes: the Georgia Prison strikes of 2010, 2012, and 2014, the first of which involved thousands of prisoners across six of Georgia’s prisons[13]; the Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strike of 2011, joined by some 6,600 prisoners across the State of California; the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike of 2013 that was joined by 33,000 prisoners in 33 facilities across California[14]; and the 2014 Alabama Prison strikes that took place in January and April of this year and seem to have involved prisoners in at least four facilities in that state.[15] Although a number of these strikes were organized by cross-racial coalitions and were most immediately directed at prison conditions (i.e. solitary confinement, free labor, poor sanitation, physical abuse, etc.), strike organizers consistently and prominently pointed to the relation between the widespread criminalization of Black and Latino communities and their own situations. Finally, we must remember that it was only a year and half ago, after the release of video taken by “Alvin” of his encounter with New York City Police Department[16], that thousands of people in New York took to the streets to protest “Stop and Frisk” policing. According to the findings of District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, there were over 4.4 million “stop and frisks” in New York City between 2004 and 2012, with over 80% of those stopped being Black and Latino. In fact, the racial make up of these stops has been so skewed that in 2011, as just one example, the number of stops of young Black men by the New York Police Department actually exceeded the total number of young Black men in the entire city of New York. These protests against “stop and frisk” policing were seen as a potential turning point, as they pushed the issue of the criminalization of the Black and Latino communities to the center stage of the New York mayoral election and even elicited a number of promises of reform from then mayoral candidate, and now Mayor, Bill DeBlasio—promises that as of today have left the disproportionate targeting of Blacks and Latinos by “stop and frisk” completely unchanged.[17]

In sum, as one Albuquerque protestor exclaimed just a few months ago, and given the context laid out above can be taken for the sentiment of a number of communities around the country, “things have reached a boiling point…and people just can’t take it anymore.”[18] When we place these events in conversation, a large tapestry of resistance comes into view that reverts us to a situation well beyond the immediate protests and riots that took place in Ferguson. Against the backdrop of a political class (white and Black) that has been deafeningly silent on the issue, there have been increasingly consistent marches, strikes, looting, and rioting around the country since 2010 in response to the criminalization of Black and Brown communities. It would be no exaggeration to say that in the U.S. we are in the midst of a “latent riot” (Badiou) that, far away from the cameras, has been slowly snowballing and today makes itself present across the country. That is, what has been gestating for some years now, and which came to light through Ferguson, is an increasingly generalized insubordination within Black and Brown communities against the racialized social order that necessarily passes directly through their harassment, incarceration, and death. Importantly, this order has been the central pillar for the legitimation of the neoliberal project that today eats away (although highly unevenly) at the wellbeing of the majority of the U.S. population (regardless of color), and this “latent riot” opens a highly uncertain moment in its trajectory.

 

In the next note(s) I’ll elaborate exactly how it is that the neoliberal order in the U.S. has been inextricable from the criminalization of Blackness, how that neoliberal order has reached a series of very deep contradictions that seem quite difficult (never impossible) to overcome, the relation between the Occupy movement and this growing “latent riot,” as well as the pitfalls and possibilities this moment of generalized insubordination might open.

 


[1] Some of the links I have included contain actual videos of police killings. I do not take the inclusion of these videos lightly. Rather, I hope they will compel us all to confront the deep meaning of the gratuitous violence represented by each and everyone of these incidents [see the work of Frank Wilderson].

[15] For a statement of the reasons behind the Alabama prison strikes see, http://www.freealabamamovement.com/FREE%20ALABAMA%20MOVEMENT.pdf

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