James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Bodies

Son … I write you in your fifteenth year. I’m writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. 

There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege and even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.[1]

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.[2]


[1] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015: 9-10.

[2] Ibid, 103-104. 

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.

Mark Greif on Seeing Through Police

A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. It is preparatory.

The sudden violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence.

In recent decades, African Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and walking while black.” The history of racial terrorism by whites is old. Police have gradually taken up its responsibilities in a process that goes back more than a century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. Racial terrorism is simply part of the job for local and metropolitan police forces in America – any policing at the level of the city, broadly construed.

Racial terror creates enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, just as it carves a fundamental division between the experience and the expectations that non-African American citizens have of police and those held by African Americans.

The more time you spend looking at police, the more you see that the law is not a true resource for them…Police lack law…This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to avoid mess or clean it up.

Part of the reason police seem at present un-reformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy – from Hobbes and Locke to the American Republic constituted in 1789 – do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact.

Secrecy by police in a public place always identifies them as a suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as as detection of crime is what police wish their job was about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy in a democracy.

Where sight disappears, abuse becomes possible.

Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law or eloquence. Their medium is not law. Police negotiate without any single, unitary reference or goal. Even a traffic stop becomes a negotiation.

When police eye African Americans, harass African Americans, obstruct the movements of African Americans and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African Americans – which even in the twenty-first century they do with regularity and impunity, no matter the police department or region of the United States – it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin.

Violence is given to police as a technique they alone can use, in the service of the overall nonviolence or pacification of society such that citizens need never use violence legitimately upon one another – they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device winds up defining police by their application of violence. They wind up originating violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock. Police add violence to situations. This becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way.

Our neighbors may support [police] wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from other forms of violence and domination that have no visible presence, or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.

 

 

Greif, Mark. Seeing Through Police, from Against Everything: On Dishonest Times. Verso Books, London, 2016: 270-285.

portrait of a mute

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There he was, pale faced and morose. Nobody like him anywhere. Beneath the white lamp glow, sullen there with his stack of blank papers, which would be creased or imperfect if only he didn’t fill them so quickly, if only the pages remained longer in his care, beneath his pen and his scrutiny.

What is the measure of a man? Is it in his handwriting? A person’s life displayed before the discerning reader, as if in a crystal ball. Wade’s short bursts of near-perfect proportionality were written hastily, without error, as if the author, given to spasmodic and obsessive episodes with the pen, always knew where his pen was headed. As if the pen cast a sweeping glance like headlights upon the fibers and terrain it was soon to illuminate. As if the driver of that pen, omniscient and aware of his fate, preferred to follow blindly rather than see his journey.

Galeano on Marx

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14 March : CAPITAL — In 1883 a crowd gathered for Karl Marx’s funeral in a London cemetery — a crowd of eleven, counting the undertaker.

The most famous of his sayings became his epitaph: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’

The prophet of global change spent his life fleeing the police and his creditors.

Regarding his masterwork, he said: ‘No one ever wrote so much about money while having so little.’ Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked while writing it.’

 

From Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, trans. by Fried, Mark. Penguin Group, New York, 2013: 85.  

Dialogue with Nietzsche, c. 2020

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Nietzsche: For the New Year: I still live, I still think; I must still live, for I must still think.[1]

T: The new year will be one of intense thought paired with increased mental rest. The idea is to continue expanding the intellectual rigor—more study and writing—then periodically scram (more often). The last thing I want is to end up like you, looking up from a pile of horse shit.[2]

[laughter]

Changes in mind and body strike in real time, not arbitrarily. Waves of thought inundate my mental shoreline, but I must continue—how else to improve on yesterday? Then take pause to quiet the mind after high tide. Each day is a lesson in writing: reflective, creative, wasteful. Advance yesterday’s intent and record its progress. Every day for decades. A different page on the calendar does not change it.

Nietzsche: The best author will be he who is ashamed to become one.[3]

T: I’ll never be ashamed and I’ll never be the best. We’ve both written ridiculous nonsense in our lives, but all I’m ashamed of are the early works and their palpable infancy. Where is your shame, dear teacher?[4]

Nietzsche: The happiest fate is that of the author who, as an old man, is able to say that all there was in him of life-inspiring, strengthening, exalting, enlightening thoughts and feelings still lives on in his writings, and that he himself now only represents the gray ashes while the fire has been kept alive and spread out.[5]

T: We writers are ash before the creative process, a storm of fire in the midst of the work and ash once again when the work is complete. The energy used to create the work is powerful enough to spawn something immortal. For somehow, in creating an object of the intellect, as you wrote: “I am of today and before, but something is in me that is of tomorrow, and the day following, and time to come.”[6]

And yes, live! Today is an opportunity and tomorrow will be another, shall you find good fortune to arrive upon its shore.

Nietzsche: Be of good cheer; what does it matter! How much is still possible! Learn to laugh at yourselves as you ought to laugh![7]

T: Laughter is undoubtedly the skeleton key for this labyrinth. Reference your example of the Dionysian impulse within us: yearning for what makes us feel good and perform at our best.[8] Look to your student Foucault who embodied it as a life philosophy. Just as with you and extremes of the mind, Foucault surrendered to physical extremes. My (more) moderate perspective reminds me that laughter is responsible for the best memories of my brief life, and that if I were to chase an extreme, marry myself to it entirely without fear of residual repercussions or side effects (e.g., you: terrible death, Foucault: terrible death[9]), it would be a life of laughter. Laughter is death’s most formidable adversary.

Nietzsche: Living—that is to continually eliminate from ourselves what is about to die.[10]

T: The human experience is living in a house one block from train tracks upon which trains traverse a hundred times a day, sirens blaring at all hours, shaking the room and waking the sleeper just as she falls asleep, finally.[11]

Nietzsche: The thinker, as likewise the artist, who has put his best self into his works, feels an almost malicious joy when he sees how his mind and body are being slowly damaged and destroyed by time, as if from a dark corner he were spying a thief at his money chest, knowing all the time that it was empty and his treasures in safety.[12]

T: Many of my edges at age 40 are yet smoothed from genetics and (relative) youth but most are visibly chipped and cracking, some damaged. I’m not ashamed or prideful of my imperfections but have always been aware of my mortality. Close proximity to death as a child wired my brain to expect to die at any time, anywhere—especially in the home. It’s no wonder I isolate myself and carry a notebook to ponder mortality like a friend or adversary (selfsame).

Nietzsche: A person needs to learn much if he is to live, to fight his battle for survival…[13]

T: One survives by learning to adapt. If you don’t adapt, you don’t survive. But we always need more critical thinkers, people who yearn to continue learning as they age. These individuals feel responsible for examining the human condition and improving it. Perhaps it is their responsibility—who else will do it?

Nietzsche: There is much that is difficult for the spirit, the strong reverent spirit that would bear much: but its strength demands the difficult and the most difficult.[14]

T: You can’t set examples if you’re afraid of responsibility.

Nietzsche: Anyone and everyone wants to lie back in the shadow of the tree that the genius has planted, while avoiding the hard necessity of working for that genius, of making him possible.[15]

T: It’s about inspiration, willpower and ability. Do average people feel inspired into action? Do they have the willpower to act? Are they able to act? For as you once wrote: “One must speak to indolent and sleepy senses with thunder and heavenly fireworks.”[16]

I look to you and the other sages to help me understand the current state of global affairs. I want to know what motivates people and why. American politics are a mess and it’s the same just about everywhere. Perhaps the fissure between core ideals has become too large to traverse. It’s an era of intense bickering and stubbornness, of falsity and lies. It’s difficult for anyone to discern the truth. People have thus perpetuated the falseness and lies, which have evolved into something greater than the lie tellers.

Nietzsche: The greatest labor of human beings hitherto has been to agree with one another regarding a number of things, and to impose upon themselves a law of agreement, which is indifferent to whether these things are true or false. This is the discipline of the mind that has thus far preserved mankind, but the counter-impulses are still so powerful that one can truly speak of the future of mankind with little confidence.[17]

T: Confidence has lapsed with the destruction of institutions—it’s been a steady erosion. People have become comfortable with their supposed leaders behaving in opposition to established norms of decorum and respect, but also in opposition to fundamental principles. They have become accustomed to false representation. Their president in America lies and steals, he works backchannels and shouts and pushes buttons and has amassed a squadron of blind followers who believe the lies or at least tolerate them. It’s unclear how the fanaticism reached such elevated levels—do they actually believe the lies (are they duped), or do they hate the other ideals so much as to become responsible for their own blindness?

Nietzsche: Fanaticism is the sole volitional strength to which the weak and irresolute can be excited, as a sort of hypnotizing of the entire sensory-intellectual system, in favor of the over-abundant nutrition (hypertrophy) of a particular point of view and particular sentiment, which then dominates […] When a man arrives at the fundamental conviction that he requires to be commanded, he becomes a believer.[18]

T: You used believer there in the context of Christianity, but it applies to any fanatic belief (blindness).[19]

Nietzsche: Belief is always most desired, most pressingly needed where there is a lack of will: for the will […] is the distinguishing characteristic of sovereignty and power. That is to say, the less a person knows how to command, the more urgent is his desire for that which commands, and commands sternly—a god, a prince, a caste, a physician, a confessor, a dogma, a party conscience.[20]

T: I’d like to continue this discussion again once I’ve reread your later writings like The Will to Power, The Antichrist and Twilight of the Idols. Perhaps in the spring. Until then I’ll use your teaching and the teachings of others to navigate this terrain and find a pathway through. I can carry the light that you and the others kept aflame. Thank you as always.

_______________________________________

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science. Trans. by Common, Thomas. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2008: 133.

[2] Nietzsche famously collapsed in Turin, Italy on January 3, 1889 after witnessing a horse flogging. He collapsed at the horse’s feet, beginning his descent (ascent?) into madness and subsequent death.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Trans. by Zimmern, Helen. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2008: 107.

[4] T: My teacher should be ashamed of his misogyny. It’s easy for me to critique the great thinker more than a century removed, but his view of women is misaligned, at best. One reason for this is undoubtedly his soured relationship with Lou Salomé, a female intellectual he admired and fell in love with. In 1882, Nietzsche, along with his friend, philosopher Paul Rée, assembled an intellectual trio with 21-year-old Salomé. Nietzsche fell for Salomé straight away and at least three times proposed marriage to her. Salomé rejected Nietzsche’s advances and ultimately began romantic relations with Rée, leaving Nietzsche alone, in anguish.

[5] Human, All Too Human: 113.

[6] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. by Martin, Clancy. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2007: 112.

[7] Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 251.

[8] T: Nietzsche’s dialectic of Apollo and Dionysius in his book The Birth of Tragedy is basically this: Human life is a continual struggle between two internally competing instincts, or powers—Apollonian (rationality, lightness, structure, harmony, restraint) and Dionysian (madness, chaos, drunkenness, ecstasy, creativity).

[9] T: Nietzsche had at least two strokes following his collapse in Turin, and he died (aged 55) from pneumonia 19 months after falling at the horse’s feet. Michel Foucault, 20th-Century philosopher, died of complications from AIDS in 1984 (aged 57) after admitting to rampant unprotected sexual encounters with men in San Francisco and elsewhere in the early 1980s.

[10] The Gay Science: 41.

[11] T: In early winter 2019 I moved to such a spot. Now, after a few months next to the train tracks, I feel a Dionysian urge to destroy the trains and smother their hellish screams that cannot be escaped at any hour. Lying awake in the darkness I calculate the men or women responsible for the blaring horns and I design the most violent stratagems upon their very lives.

[12] Human, All Too Human: 113.

[13] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Anti-Education. Trans. by Searls, Damion. New York Review Books, New York, 2016: 54.

[14] Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 25.

[15] Anti-Education: 14.

[16] Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 82.

[17] The Gay Science: 65.

[18] The Gay Science: 182.

[19] fanatic: a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause. New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2010.

[20] The Gay Science: 181.

Tim Parks on consciousness

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If the mind is marooned in the head, pulling levers and pushing buttons (alone or in a team) to tell the body what to do — then our knowledge of the outside world will always be suspect. How can I know a world if I’m not part of it, if I’m stuck in Plato’s cave unable to experience the reality without, if I’m seeing colors where there are no colors, smelling smells when, as Galileo would have it, there are no smells?[1]

  1. The popular and orthodox view [of consciousness]: It is produced by your brain and exists exclusively in your head. This is supported by almost all neuroscientists and many philosophers. Most textbooks give this view as proved.
  2. The minority enactivist view: Consciousness arises from our active engagement with the world and requires both subject and object to happen so that conscious experience is extended through the body and into the environment. This view is supported by some philosophers and a few neuroscientists.
  3. The minority Spread Mind view: Experience is made possible by the meeting of the perceptive system and the world, but actually located at the object perceived, identical with it even; in short, experience is the same thing as the object.[2]

The present orthodoxy is that there are black holes, but no smells. We are in the Platonic cave and need instruments of every kind to look at the higher reality outside, even though what we actually experience are only readings on instruments. We are trapped on one side of a Cartesian duality wondering what’s on the other, constructing a hypothetical ‘reality’ in figures, predictions and ideas.[3]

While the brain may be ‘responsible’ for the pain we feel in other parts of the body, it is apparently immune to pain itself. You don’t feel a scalpel cutting into it.[4]

Consciousness is all change, accumulation, dispersion, things that unexpectedly remain active, or repeat themselves, over years and years, a few words a teacher said at school, still very much in hearing range — things you thought had gone but suddenly come back — the smell of a certain red sauce they poured on ice cream in your infancy wafts by you fifty years later at a street corner [in a far different place] — and things you imaged would remain, must remain, they hurt so much or give so much pleasure, and yet are quite gone, or so it seems; in fact there must be many such things you don’t even know you’ve lost; you performed them once, then never again.[5]

[1] Parks, Tim. Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness, New York Review of Books, New York, 2018: 32.

[2] Ibid, 129.

[3] Ibid, 156.

[4] Ibid, 207.

[5] Ibid, 267.