Itemizing Atrocity

For blacks, the “war on terror” hasn’t come home. It’s always been here.

Police in Harlem, July 1964. Stanley Wolfson / World Telegram & Sun.

According to the Economist, “America’s police have become too militarized.” Not to be outdone, Business Insider published an article by Paul Szoldra, a former US marine who professed to be aghast at the scenes of camouflage-wearing, military-weapon-toting police officers patrolling the streets of an American city  in armored vehicles. Szoldra quotes one of his Twitter followers, another former soldier, who wrote: “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.”

Some may be surprised to see such stories run in magazines like the Economist and Business Insider, but suddenly discussions about America’s militarized police forces are semi-mainstream. In the wake of the police killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent riots and protests, social media is littered with images of tear gas, tanks, and police in military gear with automatic weapons — all aimed at black people in the city.

Several publications and writers have rushed to alert us about their stories on the militarization of the police. Commentators have encouraged us to connect the dots between what is happening overseas and what is happening here. Hashtags referring to Ferguson and Gaza share the same caption. We are told by some that the war on terror has come home.

Presumably, connecting these dots and making these comparisons will offer more clarity about the current situation faced by Ferguson’s beleaguered black residents.

But what will we better see and know? And who and what will be (once again) invisible and unheard in the process?

In her book Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman writes:

Rather than try to convey the routinized violence of slavery and its aftermath through invocations of the shocking and the terrible, I have chosen to look elsewhere and consider those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned . . . By defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.

Hartman’s emphasis on “the terror of the mundane and quotidian” is her attempt to address the dilemma of black people having their suffering (un)seen and (un)heard by non-blacks — including those who purport to care:

At issue here is the precariousness of empathy . . . how does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence to the benumbing spectacle or contend with the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other or the prurience that too often is the response to such displays?  This was the challenge faced by [Frederick] Douglass and other foes of slavery. . .

A century and a half after Douglass fought against slavery, the police have become more militarized in terms of weapons, tanks, training, and gear. SWAT teams have been deployed at an accelerated rate and for an increased number of activities. Reports, like the one recently published by the ACLU, provide some details about these technologies of war amassed by local police departments.

Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Radley Balko, and others have explained that the militarization of US police can be traced back to the mid-1960s. For example, in 1968, urban police forces were able to buy new equipment and technologies thanks to funding from the newly passed Safe Streets Act. The social anxiety and fear engendered by the Vietnam War and domestic urban rebellions led by black people provided license for the police to turn these new products on the marginalized populations of inner-city America.

SWAT teams, batterrams, and no-knock warrants (immortalized by Gil Scott Heron and written about by James Baldwin), all predate contemporary hyper-militarized police forces. Black people have been the overwhelming targets of these instruments of war. In his 1982 song “Batterram,” presaging our current uber-militarized police force, Toddy Tee raps:

And the chief of police says he just might
(Flatten out every house he sees on sight)
Because he say the rockman is takin him for a fool

For blacks, the “war on terror” hasn’t “come ‘home.’” It’s always been here. How then might we consider the emphasis on the militarization of policing as the problem as another example of “the precariousness of empathy”?

The problem with casting militarization as the problem is that the formulation suggests it is the excess against which we must rally. We must accept that the ordinary is fair, for an extreme to be the problem. The policing of black people — carried out through a variety of mechanisms and processes — is purportedly warranted, as long as it doesn’t get too militarized and excessive.

Attention is drawn to the “spectacular event” rather than to the point of origin or the mundane.  Circulated are the spectacles — dead black bodies lying in the streets or a black teenager ambushed by several police officers in military gear, automatic weapons drawn.

Along with these dramatic images, numbers and statistics are the main metric for soliciting empathy and galvanizing people into action.

It is the size and power of the gun. It is the number of cops at the scene. It is the tank pointed at protestors. It is the forty-one bullets shot at a black immigrant standing in his doorway. The eight to ten times a black teenager was shot “like an animal” when walking to see his relatives or the four hours his body laid in the street while family members and neighbors watched and waited helplessly. The at least eleven times a black woman was punched by a cop straddling her on the side of a highway. The over two minutes a forty-eight-year-old black woman, half-naked, was kept in the hallway and surrounded by about a dozen cops after being dragged out of her apartment. The number of black people stopped and frisked.

The mind-numbing images and numbers keep coming. And shock and awe often greet their arrival. Both the pictures and statistics become the stuff of (at times hard-fought for) headlines, reports, social commentaries, and “teachable moments.” Sadly, their circulation seems to demonstrate, as Frank Wilderson puts it, that “taxonomy can itemize atrocities but cannot bear witness to suffering.”

These images and numbers are not trivial or unimportant. Like the black people killed, injured, humiliated, and haunted, they matter and shouldn’t be ignored. The greater the number of shots fired, the greater likelihood of being hit. The amount of time spent physically contained by cops increases the possibility of harm.

Other black people have to live with the trauma of having seen and heard these images in real time or virally, the numbers accumulating as they fly and tick away and scream and gasp in the air. Yet we know it only takes one shot from a cop to kill. And as the police killing of Eric Garner shows, it can take no shot at all.

The problem is not just the excess. Yet one gets the sense that the only way to generate a modicum of concern or empathy for black people is to raise the stakes and to emphasize the extraordinary nature of the violations and the suffering. To circulate repeatedly the spectacular in hopes that people consider the everyday. It’s a fool’s errand because it often doesn’t garner the response desired or needed. And it leaves black people in the position of having to ratchet up the excess to get anyone to care or pay attention.

What next, some might ask? What more could happen after Ferguson and the hyper-militarization of the police? A bomb dropped on blacks in the United States? That has already been done, decades ago. To the point: spectacle as the route to empathy means the atrocities itemized need to happen more often or get worse, to become more atrocious each round in hopes of being registered.

How does black suffering register when we are told that it is the militarization of the police that is the problem? Again, Hartman is instructive, writing of “the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other.” It is true that militarization is a global phenomenon. It is true that the United States and its allied countries enforce their brutal agendas throughout the world through military force, sanctions, and “the war on terror.”

It is also true that, despite the black diaspora’s effort to emphasize what happens to black people worldwide (including in the United States), references to globalization, militarization, and the war on terror are often treated as markers of non-blackness — and among some progressives, as code for “needing to go beyond black and white” or for blacks in the United States to not be so “US-centric” (read: “self-absorbed”).

Hence the odd historiography about the militarization of the US police as emerging from the (relatively new) war on terror found in some of the current commentary. Some may promote the effort to “connect the dots” in service of a more nuanced analysis or to encourage international and interracial solidarity.

We can also consider this an example of “the precariousness of empathy,” with blacks required to tether their suffering to non-blacks (and processes often erroneously treated as non-black, such as “militarization” and “globalization”) in the hope of being seen and heard. This is also a marker of the compulsory solidarity that is demanded of black people without any expectation that this solidarity will be reciprocated.

Relatedly, the push for coalition and the use of analogies suggests a difficulty to name precisely what black people experience in the United States. Scenes of police violence against blacks in Ferguson seemingly become more legible, more readable and coherent, when put into conversation with Iraq or Gaza. And yet something gets lost in translation.

The sentiments — “I thought I was looking at pictures of Iraq but I was looking at America!” or “Ferguson=Gaza” or “now [blacks in the United States] know how the Third World feels” — circulate on social media. Such statements express a belief in American exceptionalism and a certain amount of glee and resentment towards African-Americans while professing empathy.

Amid this, we are left with the difficulty to name both the spectacle and the quotidian violence blacks in the United States experience day after day, from the police and the racially deputized. What do we call this incessant violence? How do we describe it beyond the “spectacular event”? Occupation? War? Genocide? Life? Death?

We conclude with more questions: How do we rightfully account for the increased militarization of the police as a problem without forgetting what Joy James reminds us: “the dreams and desires of a society and state will be centered on the control of the black body” — or as Jared Sexton emphasizes: blacks serve as “the prototypical targets of the panoply of police practices and the juridical infrastructure built up around them?”

How do we contend with Wilderson’s assertion that “white people are not simply ‘protected’ by the police. They are — in their very corporeality — the police?” What does all this mean when we think about hyper-militarized police forces that weaponize white supremacy against black bodies and the specter of blackness among others? How does it feel to be the prototypical target?

What do the spectacles of policing — as well as the responses to it — both reveal and camouflage in regard to the “terror of the mundane and quotidian,” a terror that is often taken for granted, even in critical commentary?