The recent killing of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer has made visible how a kind of racist, military metaphysics now dominates American life. His subsequent demonization by the media only confirms its entrance into the public consciousness as a form of vicious entertainment. The police have been turned into soldiers who view the neighborhoods in which they operate as war zones. Outfitted with full riot gear, submachine guns, armored vehicles, and other lethal weapons imported from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, their mission is to assume battle-ready behavior. Is it any wonder that violence rather than painstaking, neighborhood police work and community outreach and engagement becomes the norm for dealing with alleged “criminals,” especially at a time when more and more behaviors are being criminalized?
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But I want to introduce a caveat. I think it is a mistake to simply focus on the militarization of the police and their racist actions in addressing the killing of Michael Brown. What we are witnessing in this brutal killing and mobilization of state violence is symptomatic of the neoliberal, racist, punishing state emerging all over the world, with its encroaching machinery of social death. The neoliberal killing machine is on the march globally. The spectacle of neoliberal misery istoo great to deny any more and the only mode of control left by corporate-controlled societies is violence, but a violence that is waged against the most disposable such as immigrant children, protesting youth, the unemployed, the new precariat and black youth. Neoliberal states can no longer justify and legitimate their exercise of ruthless power and its effects under casino capitalism. Given the fact that corporate power now floats above and beyond national boundaries, the financial elite can dispense with political concessions in order to pursue their toxic agendas. Moreover, as Slavoj Žižek argues “worldwide capitalismcan no longer sustain or tolerate . . . global equality. It is just too much.” (1) Moreover, in the face of massive inequality, increasing poverty, the rise of the punishing state, and the attack on all public spheres, neoliberalism can no longer pass itself off as synonymous with democracy. The capitalist elite, whether they are hedge fund managers, the new billionaires from Silicon Valley, or the heads of banks and corporations, is no longer interested in ideology as their chief mode of legitimation. Force is now the arbiter of their power and ability to maintain control over the commanding institutions of American society. Finally, I think it is fair to say that they are too arrogant and indifferent to how the public feels.
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Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy and this has become more and more evident among people, especially youth all over the globe. As Žižek has observed, “the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.” (2) Theimportant question of justice has been subordinated to the violence of unreason, to a market logic that divorces itself from social costs, and a ruling elite that has an allegiance to nothing but profit and will do anything to protect their interests. This is why I think it is dreadfully wrong to just talk about the militarization of local police forces without recognizing that the metaphor of “war zone” is apt for a global politics in which the social state and public spheres have been replaced by the machinery of finance, the militarization of entire societies not just the police, and the widespread use of punishment that extends from the prison to the schools to the streets. Some have rightly argued that these tactics have been going on in the black community for a long time and are not new. Police violence certainly has been going on for some time, but what is new is that the intensity of violence and the level of military-style machinery of death being employed is much more sophisticated and deadly. For instance, as Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers point out, the militarization of the police in the United States is a recent phenomenon that dates back to 1971. They write:
The militarization of police is a more recent phenomenon [and marks] the rapid rise of Police Paramilitary Units (PPUs, informally SWAT teams) which are modeled after special operations teams in the military. PPUs did not exist anywhere until 1971when Los Angeles under the leadership of the infamous police chief Daryl Gates, formed the first one and used it for demolishing homes with tanks equipped with battering rams. By 2000, there were 30,000 police SWAT teams [and] by the late 1990s, 89% of police departments in cities of over 50,000 had PPUs, almost double the mid-80s figure; and in smaller towns of between 25,000 and 50,000 by 2007, 80% had a PPU quadrupling from 20% in the mid-80s. [Moreover,] SWAT teams were active with 45,000 deployments in 2007 compared to 3,000 in the early 80s. The most common use . . . was for serving drug search warrants where they were used 80% of the time, but they were also increasingly used for patrolling neighborhoods. (3)
At the same time, the impact of the rapid militarization of local police forces on poor black communities is nothing short of terrifying and symptomatic of the violence that takes place in advanced genocidal states. For instance, according to a recent report entitled “Operation Ghetto Storm,” produced by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, “police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extra judicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012. . . . This means a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours. The report suggests that “the real number could be much higher.” (4)
The emergence of the warrior cop and the surveillance state go hand in hand and are indicative not only of state sanctioned racism but also of the rise of an authoritarian society and the dismantling of civil liberties. Brutality mixed with attacks on freedom dissent, and peaceful protest harbors memories of past brutal regimes such as the dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. The events in Ferguson speak to a history of representation in both the United States and abroad that Americans have chosen to forget at their own risk. In spite of his generally right-wing political views, Rand Paul got it right in arguing that “When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury – national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture – we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.” What he does not name is the problem, as Danielle LaSusa has observed, which is a society that is not simply on the precipice of authoritarianism, but has fallen over the edge. Truly, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, we live in “dark times.”
Under the regime of neoliberalism, the circle of those considered disposable and subject to state violence is now expanding. The heavy hand of the state is not only racist; it is also part of an authoritarian mode of governance willing to do violence to anyone who threatens neoliberal capitalism, white Christian fundamentalism, and the power of the military-industrial-academic-surveillance state. The United States’ embrace of murderous weapons to be used on enemies abroad has taken a new turn and now will be used on those considered disposable at home. As the police become more militarized, the weapons of death become more sophisticated and the legacy of killing civilians becomes both an element of domestic as well as foreign policy. Amid the growing intensity of state terrorism, violence becomes the DNA of a society that refuses to deal with larger structural issues such as massive inequality in wealth and power, a government that now unapologetically serves the rich and powerful corporate interests, and makes violence the organizing principle of governance. (5)
The worldwide response to what is happening in Ferguson sheds a light on the racist and militarized nature of American society so as to make its claim to democracy seem both hypocritical and politically insipid. At the same time, such protests make visible what the artist Francisco Goya called the sleep of reason, a lapse in witnessing, attentiveness, and the failure of conscience, which lie at the heart of neoliberal’s ongoing attempt to depoliticize the American public. Political life has come alive once again in the United States, moving away from its withdrawal into consumer fantasies and privatized obsessions. The time has come to recognize that Ferguson is not only about the violence and consolidation of white power and racism in one town; it is also symptomatic of white power and the deep-seated legacy of racism in the country as a whole, which goes along with what the United States has become under the intensifying politics of market fundamentalism, militarism and disposability.
Ferguson prompts us to rethink the meaning of politics and to begin to think not about reform but a major restructuring of our values, institutions and notions of what a real democracy might look like. We need to live in a country in which we are alarmed rather than entertained by violence. It is time for the American people to unite around our shared fate as stakeholders in a radical democracy, rather than being united around our shared fears and the toxic glue of state terrorism and everyday violence. Ferguson points to some nefarious truths about our past and present. But the public response points in another more hopeful direction. What Ferguson has told us is that the political and moral imagination is still alive, thirsting for justice, and unwilling to let the dark clouds of authoritarianism put the lights out for good. But for that to happen we must move from moral outrage to collective struggles as part of a wider effort to dismantle the mass incarceration society, the surveillance state and the military-industrial-academic complex. How many more children, black youth, immigrants and others have to die before the struggle deepens?
1. Slavoj Žižek, Demanding the Impossible, ed. Yong-June Park. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013), p. 58
2. Ibid., Žižek, Demanding the Impossible, p. 68.
3. Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, “Ferguson Exposes the Reality of Militarized, Racist Policing,” Truthout (August 18, 2014). Online: https://truthout.org/news/item/25645-ferguson-exposes-the-reality-of-militarized-racist-policing
4. Adam Hudson, “1 Black Man Is Killed Every 28 Hours by Police or Vigilantes: America Is Perpetually at War with Its Own People,” AlterNet (March 28, 2013). Online: https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/1-black-man-killed-every-28-hours-police-or-vigilantes-america-perpetually-war-its; see also the report titled Operation Ghetto Storm. Online: https://mxgm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Operation-Ghetto-Storm.pdf
5. See, especially, Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2010), and (and Jill Nelson, ed. Police Brutality (New York: Norton, 2000).