Professor Jared Ball on Ferguson and the Media

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At the recent “Shrouded Narrative teach-in” at American University, Dan Falcone met Jared A. Ball, a professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, who discussed, “Propaganda and Media.” In this interview, father and husband, author of I MiX What I Like: A MiXtape Manifesto and coeditor of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable‘s Malcolm X , Ball talks about the construction of Black identity, colonialism and what is needed to stop the police killings of a Black person every 28 hours.

Dan Falcone for Truthout.org: Professor Ball, could you tell the readers about your teaching, academic interests, and how they relate to activism and democratic participation?

Jared Ball: Thank you. My academic interests and teaching are very much tied to my personal political passions – all of which revolve around Black or Africana studies, political struggles, cultural production and how that all intersects or interacts with the political and “libidinal” (thanks to the work of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton) economies of media, communication and journalism.

This primarily works out to be a focus on the political function of mass media within the context of ongoing power (national, racial, class) struggles. I generally look to extend or tailor deep traditions of radical political, economic and cultural analyses and media criticism to our time and hope that I can make them relevant to students today. To better connect traditions of political activism to the immediate work of my classes, I’ve increasingly infused the work of political prisoners into our own course work, which allows me to tap an almost endless reservoir of knowledge and experience – while exposing students to a more realistic political context for our own studies.

Additionally, this approach infuses into our classes, ideas of political struggle and activism while challenging the limitations of conventional approaches to such study, including notions of “American democracy.”

Thank you. Regarding Ferguson, do you think that there are any policy-changes in the immediate future for activists to focus on, or will this type of police violence continue until the reactions reach a critical mass?

The late great legal scholar Derrick Bell once equated this country’s public policies to a weekly random selection, roundup, and murder of hundreds of Black people. As Arlene Eisen and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) have demonstrated for the last few years now, the current rate of police killings of Black women and men is every 28 hours. Beyond that, what MXGM argues quite accurately, is that these killings reflect the nature of the state and its relationship to its colonized subjects, in this case, New Afrikans, or Black people.

These killings are an extension of an antidemocratic state whose historic anti-Blackness and exploitative relationship with Black people has, rather than been successfully organized out of existence, been merely refashioned for the 21st century. So while I personally support protests of all forms and I am open to some form of policing policy changes, I do not yet see the kind of organized mass movement required to fundamentally and permanently alter the state or that will appropriately protect Black communities.

We have to remember that before all of these police killings, there is the already-criminal existence of White supremacy and capitalism. The alleged “crimes” committed by Michael Brown and Eric Garner were what Dr. King used to call “derivative crimes,” those committed by people already suffering the larger and more fundamental crimes of racism and capital. Worse still, something I am grappling with, and trying to catch up to, what Frank Wilderson (previously mentioned) talks about, that fundamental “crime” of Blackness itself, the “natal alienation” and “social death” of Orlando Patterson; where being born Black in this country (world) means being forever severed from any identity other than those imposed by White power, or an identity of permanent inhumanity.

Add to that the fact that finance capital creates poverty and destruction wherever it goes – or perhaps better said, wherever it doesn’t go – and a rapacious war machine and an electoral political process that has corrupted an already corrupt process that was designed to prevent democracy, or what the slaver James Madison called, the “wicked project” of anything approaching equality.

Police only exist to protect this apparatus, doing as Malcolm X said, “Locally what the military does internationally.” We had better ramp up our development of a movement that will “Upset the Setup” as my man DJ Eurok/Peace Justice Universal used to say. Yes, without critical mass, another 28 hours will come due.

Can you comment on how mainstream news coverage of Ferguson misguides and misdirects?

I’ve noticed while watching coverage of professional athletes showing signs of solidarity with Eric Garner that ESPN – which cannot avoid covering these actions – continues to say that “he died as the result of a chokehold applied by a police officer who was apprehending Garner for the sale of loose cigarettes.” Every time there is mention of Garner’s death, there has to be mention of this alleged “crime.” This is an update of this continuous false balance of Michael Brown being targeted by Darren Wilson because he is said to have stolen cigarillos.

It matters little that there has still been no proof of Garner’s illegal cigarette ring, a “fact” itself only offered to omit Garner’s role as peacemaker breaking up a fight, or that Wilson did not initially know of any alleged act of theft by Brown – so a false balance has to be established. These are the fraudulent claims of animality that give even the presence (existence) of police a necessary legitimacy.

The so-called “liberal wing” of the mainstream has its own version that praises peaceful protest or easily co-opted and relatively safe protest actions, but offers little real inclusion of the kinds of radical critiques needed to make a genuine advance. Worse still for me are the failings of the dominant White “left” or “alternative” media, where I also see that there is too little inclusion of radically intervening conversations around movement building, radical electoral political party development, or any other kinds of activity that could occur in whatever interims there are between killings, spectacles and election cycles.

I saw you speak at American University in September and you remarked on how the media censored the “booing” of both Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Is this to create binaries? Can you also elaborate on your academic work that contextualizes individual Black identity historically?

I was just trying to point out that what I saw as a downplaying or outright omission of any Ferguson community rejection of Jesse Jackson or the more recent refusal by Akai Gurley’s family to allow Sharpton to his funeral is part of what I think is a mainstream attempt to keep these previously White-ordained/sanctioned Black “leaders” safe in their roles as firefighters.

Jackson and Sharpton, who long ago abandoned anything approaching the politics of the women and men they claim to emulate, are crisis managers. They are establishment politicians and media workers. They are not here to develop the kinds of movements we need if any of this is ever to end. Their presence also sets the necessary boundaries for “acceptable” political work and defines the line past which no reasonable person or group would dare go; needless to say that this line is, to me, one that must be obliterated.

As for my work, my favored approach has been the extension of an internal colonial model or the principles of colonization to the study of African people, Black people in the US included. This would simply mean for me that the construction of a Black identity takes place within and is necessary to this colonizing process; a process which exists to control, exploit and surveil. But this, as so many have already pointed out, is not just a matter of constructing a Black identity. All identities are equally constructed, each with its own purpose and each in order to define another.

Related to my last point, Sharpton exists to also define what Black activism can/not look like and to provide for White people a more or less acceptable – certainly unthreatening – form of Black activist expression. Jesse only exists as a replacement for those the state already assassinated, has imprisoned, or exiled. His presence also defines for and by Whites what is an acceptable form of Black activist expression. They are created identities designed to create and reaffirm others. The expressions of refusal by those in Ferguson and elsewhere are a righteous attempt to circumvent prescribed boundaries that have done so few of us any good.

Also in that same excellent “teach-in” at American University, you paraphrased James Baldwin. The audience (and I) went on to applaud. I partially understood the reference. I was really interested in what you meant by it exactly?

What I was probably doing was attempting to paraphrase James Baldwin. His line, went something like, “I don’t get mad when a White man calls me nigger. I just ask him why he needs me to be one.” Baldwin was an absolute genius and brilliant media scholar, too, for that matter.

White hatred of Black people isn’t just about demeaning the target or victim. The point is to reaffirm a self-delusion. Anti-Blackness is a self-defense mechanism for Whites. Baldwin’s point was that if the White man’s delusion about Black people is wrong, so then is his own self-concept. Imagine the terror in that. And since this madness of a film Exodus is out, it would be relevant to point out that this was the central thesis of Sigmund Freud’s final book, Moses or Monotheism. His point was to consider the collective trauma of a group of people who learn that their myth of origin is false.

What happens to self or collective identity when what we use to distinguish ourselves from another is shown to either be false – or, perhaps worse – found in them. For a far deeper and more powerful consideration of this and many other related points, I would invite people to see, read or hear our interviews with Dr. Frank Wilderson. With Wilderson, my comrades and I talk more about the necessity to White psychological stability of creating, promoting and disseminating their preferred versions or images of Black people. This would include the kinds of Black leadership they can tolerate, that their psyche can withstand.

Finally, what would you like to see from the president in regards to race in light of the recent murders of our Black male youth? I fear that Eric Holder and the administration may only look at the Eric Garner case and review it for its “tactics,” while omitting circumstantial evidence based on race. Do I have a reasonable concern?

What I’d like to see from the president is not really relevant. He can’t or wouldn’t do any of what I think really needs to happen – because, as some of us have argued from the beginning, Obama is the product of a process designed to assure we never see anything that approaches real equality.

What I think is more useful here is that people be encouraged to pay close attention to what is already happening. Obama has called in key activists and attempted to co-opt them, to cajole them into calm. And though I think he failed: All that I’ve seen from his office is a promise to infuse $260 million into the Ferguson Police Department. More plainly, this means that some private military outfitter or security equipment manufacturer is going to get another big payday to provide training, cameras and anything else designed to aid the police in their mission.

Why is there no similar expenditure for the communities suffering the abuses? Where is the infusion of cash into the public school system to hire and better pay and develop teachers with smaller class sizes in better schools? How about a debt cancellation program? How about $300 million to the Ferguson community to pay peoples’ rents, mortgages, student loans, etc.? How about increasing the minimum wage or canceling health-care debt/costs? How about defunding the police or forcing police to live where they work? How about the creation of an independent community review board that has the power of suspension or worse?

We see the state’s preference. No prosecution of killer cops and, in fact, a greater pay day for their bosses and the private companies by which these agencies are outfitted.

Holder has already said he will not go after the largest banks and financial institutions that wrecked millions of lives or who were caught laundering billions of dollars for international drug cartels because he was told doing so would have too much of a negative impact on domestic and foreign economies.

Word? Ok! If that is what is needed to protect organized action, let us take Holder at his word and think along those lines as well. What kind of movement can/must we create that would leave its members immune to the prosecutorial reach of the country’s leading law enforcement official?