Friday, May 01, 2015

Our Dirty War

The disappearance of citizens displays a perversely cruel and absolute sovereignty.
--Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice (2002)

I should begin by noting that I started writing what follows last week, after the publication of the New York Times story on the "1.5 Million Missing Black Men in America" but before the popular uprising in Baltimore that began Monday as a consequence of Freddie Gray's death in police custody.  In response to the latter, Baltimorean Rudolph Jackson was reported as saying of Freddie Gray "I'm not saying that [he] was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past.  But the police have made up their minds about who we are.  They figure every black man with his pants hanging down as a suspect, and they stop [us] without probable cause."  A lot has been written in the last few days regarding how long and how carefully we should think on the "suspicions" that Jackson describes, as well as the deadly consequences of those suspicions.

For the record, "what happened to Freddie Gray," as far as we know now, was that his spine was severed while in police custody. For whatever it's worth, and this only has a grossly curious worth, experts say that, quite simply, you can't break your spine like Freddie Gray is reported to have done.  We also know that Freddie Gray died as a result.  Every official and/or "leaked" published report of this incident has described Freddie Gray's injury in the passive voice.  Freddie Gray's spinal chord was severed.  Freddie Gray died as a result.

The Baltimore police department has opted to hand the findings of their investigation into Freddie Gray's death over to a prosecutor, instead of releasing those findings to the public, as they initially promised to do.  Every last one of us already know better and know more than what has been reported to us about that incident, though,  Freddie Gray's is not the story of a black man who "somehow died" in police custody. His is the all-too-familiar story of a black man who was made to disappear in the course of the United States' ongoing Antiblack Dirty War.

Lady Justice Being Held Back by the Angel of Mercy
(Sculpture by Glynn Acree on the campus of Samford University)
Desaparecidos ("the disappeared") is a late-20th century neologism that has resisted comfortable translation into English, both linguistically and conceptually. The Spanish and Portuguese desaparecidos (n.) was initially devised to name tens of thousands of primarily Argentine and Chilean persons who were extrajudicially abducted, assassinated, tortured and/or executed-- that is to say, made to disappear--in the course of what came to be known as Argentina's "Dirty War" under the Pinochet regime in Chile.  In those contexts, "to disappear" (desaparecer) was employed as a transitive verb, something that one does to another, or something that is actively done to one. During Argentina's Dirty War, for example, the question was often: what do you say of a son or a mother, dragged by police or other agents of the state out of his place in the streets or from her place of work and never heard from again?  Without official records of his fate or her whereabouts, without an arrest, a trial, a judgment, a fine to pay, without even an official to bribe or an inmate to visit, how do you account for your loved one's absence?

When there is no body, no death certificate, no explanation, you do not say "he disappeared."  You say he was disappeared.  You do not say that she was executed, no matter the level of your confidence that she is, in truth, dead.  You say they disappeared her.

In so doing, as many did thirty years ago, Argentineans and Chileans in some small part may have effectively demystified the conditions of the disappeared's disappearance, tacitly affirmed both the reality of their deaths and the clandestine injustice that brought those deaths about, but only at the expense of describing those disappearances in a way that simultaneously shrouded the agents of injustice in yet another layer of impunity. In this respect, the Spanish idiom "él fue desaparecido"-- "he was disappeared" or "he was made to disappear"-- shares an unholy alliance and abettance with its (intransitive and deceptively passive) English-language correlate "he disappeared." For countless loved ones of desaparecidos across South America throughout the 1970's-90's, giving a more or less "true" account of the disappeared qua "disappeared" required attempting to narrate a story in which one could only, at best, vaguely point in the general direction of a secret.  That secret was rarely what happened to the disappeared-- far from it, in fact. Rather, the real secret primarily involved the how of the disappearance, the why of the disappearance and, in what often amounted to a truth that stymied both understanding and imagination, the complicatedly nefarious for the sake of which of the disappearance.

Recently, the New York Times ran a story on the 1.5 million "missing" black men in contemporary America.  A few key factors underlie this shocking statistic, chief among them the disproportionate number of black men who suffer early death (either by homicide, extrajudicial executions or various sorts of health conditions that are symptomatic of poverty), incarceration and overseas military deployment. The authors of the NYT's Upshot study summed up their findings thusly:
Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.
That is a stark description, indeed, and one that ought to shock and offend, if not also terrify, any and every American who believes the lie of our so-called "post-racial" United States.  But it is also a grossly misleading description.  Black men have not disappeared from daily life in the United States as if in some magical, mysterious "vanishing."  The truth is that black men are being made to disappear from American life.  Black (and brown) men are regularly, systematically and in no small measure deliberately disappeared (v.) from daily life, from their families and homes and work places, from polling booths and public spaces, from inclusion as persons of concern in our collective conscience and sense of collective responsibility.

Black men are the United States' desaparecidos.

It is long past time to reckon with the fact that ours is a haunted democracy.  We are haunted not by thousands, not even by hundreds of thousands, but rather by millions upon millions of spectres of forcibly disappeared citizens, whose detention, death and intentional erasure mark the very boundaries of our community, define the content of our shared "secret," and constitute what ought to be our shared shame.

The disappearing of citizens, as Teitel rightly notes in my epigraph above, displays not only a perversely cruel but also a perversely absolute exercise of state power.  It brings to light what Giorgio Agamben (in his State of Exception) called the arcanum imperii, the "secret of power," in our time: an empty space at the center of sovereign activity for which we can at most, in our language and thinking, only inadequately account.  It is the space that "grounds" the Law, but which the Law does not govern and cannot coerce.  It is the space where sovereign power is executed and, more importantly, executes.  It is the space where a man like Freddie Gray can be arrested by agents of the state and, in the custody of those same agents of the state, have his spine "mysteriously" broken and die as a result.  It is, exactly as Agamben described, a space where "a human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life."

It is the space where disappearing, in the active voice, is made (silently) possible.


I.  Desaparecidos to Argentina: "The truth is I never left you."
If the United States wants to begin dealing seriously with its ghosts, with the reality of its desaparecidos, it would be well-served to look South for direction, a direction in which (unfortunately) we never look for moral or political instruction.  A little less than a year ago, in the initial wake of the Ferguson unrest, I argued on this blog that we ought to look South-- to South Africa-- in order to reckon with the fact of the United States' de facto American apartheid.  In the service of more comprehensive understanding our current crisis, re-ignited again this week in Baltimore, it is worth briefly revisiting the case of another potentially enlightening and informative Southern tutor, Argentina, a nation whose spectres, both living an dead, forced it to acknowledge a Dirty War ever so similar to our own (ongoing and unacknowledged) one.

Please stay with me in the following, as I will be taking a (very) long and circuitous, but essential, route back to Baltimore.

Just over three decades ago, in 1984, the first significant report of a truth commission, Nunca Más ("Never Again") was published.  It was the product of Argentina's National Commission on the Disappeared, often referred to by the acronym of its Spanish title CONADEP (Comisión Nacional para la Desaparición de Personas), which had been established by the Presidential decree of Raúl Alfonsín. Eight years before Alfonsín’s election in 1976, armed forces comprised of the commanding officers in Argentina’s army, navy and air force had seized power and they went on to rule the country for the next seven years in several successive military juntas. Extensive tactics of extra-judicial detention, torture, kidnapping, assassination and "forced disappearances" were employed by military juntas against suspected left-wing (communist) political dissenters in what subsequently came to be known as Argentina's "Dirty War."

Government overthrows such as the one that took place in 1976 were nothing new in Argentina, where the military had long played a prominent role in government and politics. Of course, the most storied example of a military-political hybrid leader in Argentina was Juan Perón, the colonel who became central to Argentinean politics when he helped to unseat President Ramón Castillo in 1943. Perón was elected President in 1946 (due in part to the popularity of his movie star wide, Evita) but was himself overthrown in 1955 and exiled to Spain. Over the two decades following Perón’s exile, his popularity grew and he became something of a cult figure with immense influence on Argentinean politics, despite his physical absence from the country. In 1970, a group of self-proclaimed “left-wing Perónistas” abducted de facto President General Pedro Aramburu (one of the leaders who helped depose Perón in 1955). When Perón died four years later, Argentina was mired in a bitter divide between the political left and right, suspended in a highly-distressed state that was only compounded by rampant inflation and the public’s growing impatience for a regime change. Perón’s vice president and third wife, Isabel, assumed power after his death, but proved incapable of dealing with Argentina’s growing economic and political problems, eventually making way for the military junta in 1976, which was backed by tremendous popular support. The extreme tactics subsequently adopted by the junta in the Dirty War were in large part allowed by the unfettered initial support it received after Isabel Perón’s unseating.

It was only after its war with Great Britain over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands that Argentina’s military, disgraced by loss, acquiesced to its outraged public’s demand for a popular election. (According to a December 12, 1982 New York Times article, that demand came in the form of a 24-hour strike by 9 million of the country’s workers, largely facilitated by the National Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church as a part of what it called “national reconciliation.”) Argentina subsequently returned to civilian rule in 1983 and began its official transition to democracy, but only after the military junta granted itself, on its way out of power, immunity from prosecution and destroyed all documents related to its regime of repression. Raúl Alfonsín, in his first official act as the new democratically-elected president, asked Congress to declare the self-amnesty law (dictated by the junta only a few days before the election) “null and void.” Alfonsín announced at the same time his intent to address accountability for the extensive and brutal human rights violations of the previous several years’ Dirty War against political dissidents. This accountability came in the form of a truth commission, CONADEP, established within a week of Alfonsín’s election.

Although CONADEP (also known as the Sabato Commission) never held public hearings, it remained very much in the public eye over the years of its operation and beyond, as evidenced by the high level of interest in its published report. Nunca Más became an immediate best-seller in Argentina. According to Diana Taylor, copies of it literally “dotted the beaches as summer vacationers in swimwear read the dreadful testimonies.” And the testimonies that CONADEP collected were, without doubt, truly dreadful. As indicated by its title, CONADEP’s mandate focused (and limited) the commission to investigating and reporting only on the “disappeared,” those kidnapped during the Dirty War who were either assassinated or died in detention/torture centers. The number of disappeared was so great that the Depositions Department, CONADEP’s largest, heard testimony from people almost eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, in an attempt to gather as much information as was available for locating persons (or, more often, the bodies of persons) declared as “disappeared.” These depositions recounted literally thousands of reports of missing persons, as well as the horrifying testimonies of survivors of over 300 detention and torture camps.

Many years ago, during the course of my doctoral research on truth commissions, I was struck by several passages near the beginning of Nunca Más in which the commissioners seemed particularly concerned to emphasize that much of Nunca Más' content would inevitably be difficult to comprehend, if not also to believe, as they suspected “the men and women of our nation have only heard of such horror in reports from distant places.” Yet, the commissioners insisted, each and every one of the cases cited in CONADEP’s report were but examples of a larger pattern.  That is to say, the atrocities and inhumanities of the Dirty War, as described in Nunca Más, were exemplary of both the State in which they occurred and the configuration of power that State executed. This was a critical distinction and a crucial part of satisfying the most fundamental mandate of "truth" commissions, of which CONADEP was the first in history,  It reminded Argentineans that CONADEP's report was not simply highlighting the most gruesome or sensational stories-- it was not a record of "bad apple" cases-- but rather an objective and undiluted account of the actual events of Argentina’s Dirty War.  It was, in effect, an attempt to re-narrate the Truth of those years from the point of view of victims.  Despite struggling with how to properly represent the acts described by victims without turning Nunca Más into an “encyclopedia of horror,” the commissioners found no possible way of avoiding the graphic details of their stories.  CONADEP's charge was to tell the truth, to report what happened, and in so doing to force men and women of conscience to promise: Never again.

Some scholars trace the origin of truth commissions back to the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials, which represented a collective decision on the part of Allied victors to come to terms with the atrocities committed during that war. Immoral, unjust and inhumane acts committed by states against their citizens (or the citizens of their enemies) were, before Nuremburg, generally swept under the historical carpet as so much collateral damage of political conflict. Victims were expected to engage in collective amnesia, perpetrators largely escaped unpunished, and victors hurried about the business of ushering in a new political order with little thought to the lingering wounds that fester and continue to poison states long after they cease committing gross violations. But these new orders remained damaged, indeed haunted, in their neglect to reckon with the past as, in the words of Argentine scholar Carlos Santiago Nino, “silence and impunity were the norm rather than the exception.”

Although surrounded by much debate and disagreement, the Nuremberg Trials were designed to serve as a new paradigm for refusing "silence and impunity" and, by initiating one of the 20th century's greatest political discourses (that of human rights), for empowering individuals with both a legal personality and rights enforceable by individuals against the State. As it turned out, though, Nuremberg was not easily repeatable and it did not succeed as a transferable paradigm, least of all to transitional democracies. Teresa Goodwin Phelps, in Shattered Voices: Language, Violence and the Work of Truth Commissions (2004), explains the difficulty of repeating Nuremberg thus:
It was, first of all, a victors’ trial: the winners were prosecuting and the losers were on trial. Most contemporary transitions to democracy do not have clear winners and losers. Second, at Nuremberg the opposing sides were not attempting to build a new political community together. They were separate sovereign states whose futures would be connected at arm’s length.
The failure of the Nuremberg paradigm was in large part due to its reliance on traditional (retributive) justice mechanisms of criminal prosecution and the “trial” form, which in many subsequent transitional societies was either an impractical or, for various reasons, imprudent option. Truth commissions thus came into view as a genuinely novel alternative for emergent democracies, haunted democracies, hamstrung by seemingly insurmountable historical, political and bureaucratic constraints, which nonetheless still viewed a reckoning with the past as an indispensable part of establishing a just society.  Argentina's CONADEP was the first real experiment in what now goes by the name "transitional justice," the first test-case of the truth commission form, and Nunca Más was the first product of that experiment.

Dirty wars like Argentina's were not new in history, nor was the phenomenon of desaparecidos which came to define it.  And Argentina's truth commission, like almost every other since, was not an unequivocal success in dealing with such, however one might measure "success" in these sorts of things, neither in its truth-telling function nor the accomplishment of its aims for national reconciliation. But what CONADEP did offer was the first historical example of the manner in which a State can commit itself to actively pursuing and making public the truth of its current, past or ongoing abuse for the sake of not only morally legitimizing, but also sustaining, itself as a state. In fact, since the advent of truth commissions like CONADEP, a number of scholars have begun to focus on Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to argue that Article 19 guarantees an as-yet-unrecognized human right: the “right to know.”  On this readingof Article 19, citizens have a right to know what their State does in their name, what the State does to them, who the State (in the parlance of Michel Foucault) "makes live" or "lets die," and why it elects to do so.

Perhaps most directly germane to the United States' current and ongoing Antiblack Dirty War, CONADEP gave us the conceptual category "desaparecidos." It gave us a term by which we might begin to understand our own haunted democracy, a specific name for the state activity of disappearing and the persons who are disappeared, a new and substantive category of political speech.

Desaparecidos is word that we, in the United States, haven't had for the thing we do and the citizens to whom we are doing it.  It is the word we've needed to understand the activity by which we have made ourselves into a haunted democracy. The thing about desaparecidos that Argentina was forced to acknowledge, which the United States cannot yet acknowledge because we do not acknowledge the phenomenon of desaparecidosthe truth is they never left us, Yes, desaparecidos are, in some respect, illusions. They're not the solutions we thought they would be, qua disappeared.  But the answer was there all along.



II.  The Force That Disappears
The United States is currently engaged in a Dirty War against a very specific sub-population of its citizenry-- namely, black men, women and children-- every single day.  This "Antiblack Dirty War" is our longest continuing war, not the War in Afghanistan.  This Antiblack Dirty War, not the Civil War or World War II, is by far our bloodiest and our deadliest war.  This Antiblack Dirty War, not the War on Drugs or the War on Terror or the War against Poverty, is the most nebulous, the one we struggle the most with accounting for and reckoning with, the one in which we invest the most energy to deny and masquerade, to deceive and dissimulate the truth surrounding, and about which we remain the most intentionally, willfully and culpably ignorant. Our Antiblack Dirty War has been ongoing for as long the United States has been in existence, though the tactics of waging it have mutated over the years, adjusted to and accommodated the changing sentiments of our considerably less-mutable ruling class, remained (by virtue of a truly dizzying array of justificatory narratives) always just on the safe side of popular moral opprobrium.

It is also the war that has remained, until this last year, just on the safe side of genuine revolutionary rebellion.

The New York Times deserves some credit for its effort to call a spade a spade with its "1.5 Million Missing Black Men"  story of 20 April 2015-- perhaps the closest we've ever seen in mainstream American reportage to an outright avowal of the reality of United States' desaparecidos-- but it fell painfully short of succeeding in that attempt when it failed to connect its own dots and acknowledge that, despite the awkward English-language translation, "disappearing" (vis à vis black men in America) is a transitive, not an intransitive, verb.  It is both a word and a thing toward which American English refuses to extend invitation, despite the fact that we need to do so, we must do so, for the sake of and in spite of ourselves. The NYT Editorial Board, in a subsequent (25 April) article, came considerably closer to bridging that linguistic chasm in their piece entitled "Forcing Black Men Out of Society." There, they clearly intended to suggest that American black men's disappearances are "forced disappearances"-- for the record, a designated human rights violation-- but even there the NYT Editorial Board could not bring themselves to avoid scare-quoting "missing," even as they explained that very phenomenon of black men's disappearance as anything but mysterious. Instead, they opted to note the "understatement" of the veiled truth they report.  From the NYT Editorial Board:
While the 1.5 million number is startling, it actually understates the severity of the crisis that has befallen African-American men since the collapse of the manufacturing and industrial centers, which was quickly followed by the “war on drugs” and mass imprisonment, which drove up the national prison population more than sevenfold beginning in the 1970s.
In other words, there is little to nothing "mysterious" or intransitive about the disappearance of 1.5 million black men from daily life that the NYT initially reported.  The truth is right there in their accounts, coded and defracted as it may be through the prisms of various other justificatory narratives concerning police violence, incarceration rates, cultural prejudices, economic forces, poverty and health stats.

But the truth of the United States' "missing" black men is hardly a difficult secret to decode: black men in the United States are being disappeared.  They are being disappeared via police violence, incarceration, overseas military deployment, various and sundry and deeply embedded and often impersonal cultural prejudices that manifest in, for example, employment practices and compensation disparity.  They are being disappeared via our collective go-to impersonal explanation, "the Invisible Hand," which translates in contemporary euphemism as "economic forces," which in real terms refers to not only race-based poverty, but also the motley variables that constitute race-based health stats, housing stats, crime stats, and which radically defract and distort our collective understandings of not only citizenry, but also family and community.  Those of us who read the NYT article need not wonder about the forces that cause the phenomena it described.  In Aristotelian terms, we know very well the material, the formal and the efficient causes of the so-called "disappearance" of black men in the United States,

What we pretend as if we don't know is what Aristotle called the "for the sake of which," the final cause, of black men's disappearance in the United States. But we do know it.  The for the sake of which of black men's disappearance is nothing more complicated that to "win" the Antiblack Dirty War, the war in which we continue to refuse we are engaged.

What must sovereignty (i.e., state power) as a "force that disappears" look like in order to do what it is doing to and in our democracy?

For Argentinians and Chileans, forty years ago, it looked like this: the police or some other agent of the state takes you into custody without cause or charge, transfers you to a detention center, where you are held without record or report and tortured, eventually executed, after which the they deny any knowledge of your whereabouts or fate. The painfully uncomfortable truth, for we in the United States, is that this is also exactly how state power is uniformly executed by our own agents of the state today.  Not just in our foreign wars, where we dispense impersonal drones to indiscriminately kill the guilty and the innocent with barely an interest in distinguishing between them, but also domestically, where we empower and do not question (or indict) police who shoot and kill unarmed citizens and then, as a matter of policy, draw victims' hands behind their back and handcuff dying men, men who cannot breathe, men who have not been charged with any crime, men who will not live to be be afforded the basic Constitutional right of a swift and speedy trial by a jury of their peers. Disappearance in the United States looks exactly as Giorgio Agamben described, exactly as would be recognized by Argentineans and Chileans, exactly as every one of us have seen with our own eyes on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter: the gross theater of "a human with no relation to law standing before a norm with no relation to life."

This is what a human with no relation to law standing, nay, fleeing, before a norm with no relation to life looks like..  Also, this.  And this is what a child with no relation to law, standing before a norm with no relation to life, looks like.  Those are but examples, not uncommon ones, of what our Antiblack Dirty War looks like.

If you, like President Barack Obama and almost every other elected agent of the State, have not been paying attention to the growing and intensifying #BlackLivesMatter campaigns since Ferguson, you have no one to blame but yourself for your ignorance of what I'm calling our longstanding and ongoing Antiblack Dirty War.  #BlackLivesMatter is not just a moment, it is a movement.  It is a long-overdue and necessary intervention in the otherwise unquestioned business of a white supremacist state. The great virtue of the #BlackLiveMatters campaign is that it explicitly avows, right there in its hashtag and without any other qualification, that black lives are not cursory, marginal, dispensable, trivial or inessential, that is to say, all the values that literally everything else about U.S. daily life disavows. Black lives are not undeserving of the same fundamental moral regard as other human lives. The pushback against #BlackLivesMatters, which argues on the basis of (entirely predictable) objections that no one should be "forced" to say "Black Lives Matter" when, in truth, "All Lives Matter," are nothing more than evidence of a widespread, deeply-embedded, profoundly dishonest and consistently rewarded allegiance to the very system of white supremacy that Ta-Nehisi Coates described so thoroughly last year in his "The Case for Reparations."

Of course "all lives matter." This is the fundamentally human, moral sentiment that opponents of people's revolutions, throughout history, have always denied.

But in the contemporary United States, the value of "all lives" are not systematically, all too often in cold blood, disappeared in the way that black lives are. That is the simplest and most comprehensive reply to those who night object to the race-specific valuation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. (To that end, I highly recommend Judy Butler's NYT interview entitled "What's Wrong With All 'Lives Matter'?")  We're too accustomed, in large part because of timorously reported sorts of stories like the recent ones published in the NYT, to irresponsibly concede that, alas, things are inevitably and unavoidably the way they are, black men (passively, intransitively, mysteriously) "disappear" all the time, but no matter, we have sufficient-enough explanatory accounts for those disappearances. There is nothing to be done here.

And/yet/but, if the sovereign force that secures us as citizens-in-good-standing of a democracy is the very same force that silently and summarily disappears 1.5 million of our fellow citizens without sufficient cause or explanation, we must ask ourselves: what is there that is defensible in that sort of force? What is the nature of the sovereign power that, by virtue of forcibly disappearing some of its citizens, simultaneously justifies and endorses the rest qua citizens?  How can I abide as much? What are the principles upon which my fundamentally democratic responsibility, my sense of political obligation, my most basic moral sense to show reverence for the law, is based?

Suddenly, "F*ck the Police" doesn't seem like such a radical claim.  Who wants to, who is able to, make a life under those conditions?


III.  The Whole Damn System Is Guilty As Hell
The answer to that that last question above, by all available measures, is quite evident: too many of us are willing and able to abide the current state of affairs. Too many of us voluntarily choose to accede conditions of a state power that summarily selects us among the "made to live"... as long as that same state power selects others as those who are "let to die" or, in what amounts to the same thing, "made to disappear."  We concede to living in a state of exception as long as we remain secure that our State is the exception, that it exercises its power exceptionally, as long as we remain a member of the exceptional reserve it protects and justifies.  And by "we" I mean, most specifically, white and/or wealthy Americans.

But I also use "we" to refer, more generally, to all bystanders, aiders and abettors to obvious injustice, all those for whom property, security and ignorance are more precious than their neighbors' well-being, if not also their neighbors' lives.

Because the cold and hard truth is that the United States is "exceptional" in exactly zero ways other than its unrivaled perfection of white supremacist rule and capitalist exploitation.

Last August, I argued on this blog that what we were witnessing in Ferguson was the beginning of a massive, popular calling-to-account of our so-called democracy as the American apartheid that it is. In the interim, and especially in this last week, I've been given reason to partially amend my earlier evaluation.  I would still contend that the United States is a de facto apartheid state, but the events of the last eight months have motivated me to determine that my initial account was not sufficiently nuanced. The challenge of combating, undoing or reforming de jure apartheid states-- like South Africa's in the latter half of the 20thC and like Israel's today-- is in large part most effectively accomplished through explicit Constitutional or legal reform.  But such reforms require, first, an acknowledgment of systemic politically- and legally-sanctioned segregation. The United States no longer prescribes racial-segregationist norms in law.  In fact, those very norms are proscribed by law. What we have now, what Michelle Alexander has rightfully named "the New Jim Crow," is an almost ingeniously constructed system of fundamentally extralegal state-enforced segregation and inequality.

We are increasingly less comparable to South Africa of the 1950's-90's, in my revised view,  than we are to Argentina during its Dirty War... which is to say, the United States' (like Israel's) tactics of enforcing segregation, controlling populations, manufacturing allegiance and dissent, making live and letting die, is increasingly accomplished by way of (almost always de facto, hardly ever de jure) perversely cruel and absolutely sovereign exercises of state power.  In the absence of an obviously objectionable, state-sanctioned segregationist legal system to account for such widespread, consistent and regular inconsistencies in the execution of justice, how else do we explain our current state of affairs? The only way citizens of these United States can reckon, honestly, with the ever-increasing and truly gross disparities in race-based wealth, health, incarceration and mortality rates is to at last avow our Antiblack Dirty War, the war that we have not declared but wage every day.

Who among us, with the full confidence of conscience, upon a probative review of the facts, can not say anymore: the whole damn system is guilty as hell?

Those of us born in the years that transverse Generation X and the so-called Generation Y ("Millennials") owe a particular debt of gratitude to Ta-Nahisi Coates,who is nothing short of the voice of conscience for our generation, our parrhesiastes par excellence. Coates has called out, articulated and condemned in popular fora the the United States' system of white supremacy, its consequences and effects, bravely and repeatedly, like no other in my generation.  (As a philosopher, I cannot but bemoan the fact that professional philosophers have consistently failed to do the same.) There is exactly nothing with which I would disagree in Coates' diagnoses and prognoses here, here and most recently here.  The people's uprisings in Ferguson and following over the course of the last year, including and especially the most recent uprising in Baltimore, are not primarily examples of democratic lawlessness, nor are they examples of a cancer that need be excised from our Republic, nor are they inexplicable. Nor are they surprising. They are not indications of a popular (or, rather, sub-popular) disregard for the rule of law, despite the fact that some are in fact breaking the law in the course of these protests. These uprisings are nothing more or less than demands for a justice beyond the law, before the law, for the sake of the law and in spite of the manner in which the law is currently executed.

In one of Coates' most recent pieces, in which he more or less offers a defense of violence as a legitimate tactic of revolutionary force, Coates answers those who condemn protesters under the guise of advocating nonviolence thus:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
I say again: the United States is currently engaged in a protracted and ongoing Antiblack "Dirty" War that we refuse to acknowledge, a Dirty War that both haunts and poisons our democracy. To whatever extent wars between contemporary sovereign States is governed by rules, those rules have been designed by States to protect citizens of States against inhumane treatment.  The laws of war, unnecessary as they may seem to our everyday moral sensibility, expressly prohibit the inhumane treatment, torture or "disappearance" of enemy citizens, as well as their summary execution. These "rules of war" secure for enemies of State at least a minimal degree of humane treatment, independent and in spite of their judgment of guilt or innocence, as a matter of principle. Yet, as the family and friends of Michael Brown,  Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Travon Wilson, Eric Garner and hundreds of other black men killed by police this year can attest, the United States continues to treat so-called "enemies of the state" as stateless people with no protections at all, even when the enemies of State are its own citizens.

Think on this, just for a moment, any of you who still believe in a "post-racial" United States or in the democratic virtue of American exceptionalism: every single day, agents of the United States, actively and with practically-unquestioned impunity, refuse the same basic protections to black men, women and children that we are bound by international statute to afford to foreign enemies of our State.  On a daily basis, agents of our state (i.e., police, prison guards, public defenders, self-appointed vigilantes and the like) extrajudicially cull the herd of our citizenry, select among those who are made to live and those who are let to die, finally and irreversibly determine the quick from the dead.

That is nothing other than an unofficial, undeclared, but deadly real Dirty War against black people that our state is waging in our name.  In your name and in my name.  Because we will not avow it as such, we describe the regular disappearance of black people as inexplicable exceptions in what are, by all accounts, entirely regular occurrences. As protesters in Ferguson and in Baltimore have rightfully and morally claimed-- and as others in predominantly-black urban areas (like my home, Memphis) inevitably will claim in the very near future-- it is time to rise up and give voice, by any means necessary, to the the brutal, violent, immoral and extant Truth of our American democracy: the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

For the uninitiated, the next part of that revolutionary chant is: "Indict. Convict, Send those killer cops to jail."  Without doubt, the fact that it is near impossible to indict police in these United States should be an a shame and an embarrassment and an offense to us all.  We ought to send those killer cops to jail.

For my part, I am increasingly disinclined to believe that "sending killer cops to jail," even if we could do so, would assuage the ills that plague us. Neither will protests, or boycotts, or so-called "riots." Neither will peaceful, non-violent intervention.  Neither will forgiveness and reconciliation.  Neither will voting, for that matter.  The whole damn system is guilty as hell.  We may very well have passed the point of incremental reformation, of fact-based and consensus-driven adjustments of our wrongs.  We all find ourselves, now, constituted as citizens by a complex social ontology with its deepest struts and girders built so solidly within the frame of capitalist exploitation and white supremacy-- the most devoted and dreadful of bedfellows-- that it is increasingly impossible to exercise any meaningful sense of resistance outside of the parameters already allowed by that frame. To paraphrase Foucault: power produces subjects that reproduce the power that produced them quai subjects. Even revolutionaries, like those who are gathering, marching, suffering together in Ferguson and beyond-- and, yes, also those who are disrupting and looting and burning-- cannot help but being coopted into a the very narrative they refuse and, as a consequence, reinforcing the power structure that defines and refuses them.  The very same structure that summarily dismisses/disappears them as criminals.

For those who may still want to protest that the 1.5 million so-called "missing" black men about which the NYT reported last week are not our own desaparecidos, that the United States is not engaged in a (Antiblack) Dirty War, that comparing us with Dirty War Argentina or Pincohet's Chile is beyond the pale, consider this: since Monday, now-nearing in excess of 500 protesters have been taken from the streets, locked up and are being in held in jail, without having been officially arrested on any charge.  And if that gross violation of habeus corpus doesn't offend your democratic sensibilities enough... Just. Watch. This.



The protester in the abduction/disappearance above, Joseph Kent, is a student at Morgan State University and has been a community organizer since his middle-school days.  He has always been, by all accounts, a peaceful protester, even described once as "MLK with tattoos and gold fronts." Joseph Kent first appeared on the public radar when he began organizing protests in Baltimore in response to Michael Brown's (Ferguson, MO) murder by police as a part of Rev. Al Sharpton's Justice for All campaign. What you just saw in the video above was Joseph Kent being made to disappear.  Not in the way that is easily explainable by some actions of his own.  Nor by any above-the-board actions of the state.  Rather, an armored vehicle rolled up on Joseph Kent, a cadre of hooded police shoved him inside and whisked him away,and Joseph Kent was disappeared.

Let me return to the very same set of questions that I posed at the beginning of this piece, before in the context of Argentina's Dirty War, but now in the context of our own American lived-experience:  what do you say of a son or a mother, dragged by police or other agents of the state out of his place in the streets or from her place of work and never heard from again?  Without official records of his fate or her whereabouts, without an arrest, a trial, a judgment, a fine to pay, without even an official to bribe or an inmate to visit, how do you account for your loved one's absence?  When there is no body, no death certificate, no explanation, you do not say "he disappeared."  You say he was disappeared.  You do not say that she was executed, no matter the level of your confidence that she is, in truth, dead.  You say they disappeared her.

What you just saw in the video above was the definitive tactic of a Dirty War.  What you saw was exactly what the United Nations has defined as a human rights violation.  What you saw was exactly what a "forced disappearance" looks like.


IV. A Riot Is The Language of the Unheard
Ours is a haunted democracy. Haunted by our own forcibly disappeared, our own desaparecidos.  We have left ourselves no other way of speaking truth to power, of reckoning with these ghosts, of hearing the desperate cries of our vanished, our unheard, except in the manner that we are seeing now in Baltimore, in the same manner we saw it eight months ago in Ferguson, and in the manner that we will inevitably see it again elsewhere, everywhere.  Too many people are quick to note that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not advocating violent protest when he claimed that "a riot is the language of the unheard," but they seem to miss that he was not unqualifiedly disavowing violence, either.  The title of the address from which that quote is taken is "The Other America." There is an America, as MLK, Jr described in that same address, which enjoys "the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality." But there is also an other America, which "has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair." King recognized that it was that other America that was rioting, and when he recognized the riot as the "language of the unheard" he also did not condemn the voice in which the riotous unheard spoke.  What King said, what is too often glossed over in the interest of telling a story of radical social reform that is simple, clean and easy, is this: "it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots." And then King follows with this:
But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.
I've spent the better part of my philosophical efforts over the last decade or so trying to elucidate the manner in which democracy's fundamentally autoimmune tendencies determine it as a very risky political enterprise.  Because my initial focus was transitional democracies (like Argentina, Chile and South Africa) and human rights violations, and because I began that project immediately in the wake of the massive global transformation of democratic sensibility following 9/11, I've primarily focused on emphasizing the state's side of democracy's autoimmune dis-ease.  But in the last year especially, I've come to realize that autoimmune symptoms, as they do in all autoimmune diseases, manifest themselves as much in the organs, parts and limbs of democracy as they do in its formal and discarnate structures.

The late French-Algerian philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who was in his later years particularly concerned to tease out exactly how and why we find ourselves incapable of thinking outside of an overly-determined and (really and symbolically) suicidal configuration of "sovereignty," framed the problem exactly right, I think, when he proposed (in Rogues) that "the great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps of all democracy... is that the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alternative."  Derrida's question is not only one for democratic, sovereign, state power.  It is a challenge for all of us (little-"d") democrats, all of us who want to believe in the basic tenets of democracy, the rule of law and the empowering authority of the demos.  

The fact that "rule" itself, the "law" itself,  by definition, must not and cannot abide detractors, dissidents or disruptors leaves no option for those who the law will not hear except the riotous language of the unheard.  That is to say, no option other than riot, active and intentional and organized disregard for the law. There is nothing about protest that is fundamentally antidemocratic. Protests like we're seeing now in Baltimore are democratically-voiced propositions for a democratic alternative to the status quo.  But they can easily be figured as, can easily appear as, and in some instances may very well be, instead, alternatives to democracy.  There is nothing in Nature herself that obligates or commands human beings to participate in the particular configuration of power that "democracy" dictates.  Democracy has never been anything more than a fragile gossamer, a highly tenuous agreement, at best a presumptive social contract, and as we all know, contracts are as easily broken as they are made.

If we find ourselves in a so-called democratic state, as we do now, which is violating the fundamental tenets of the democratic social contract, while at the same time a justifiably and egregiously disenfranchised segment of its citizenry rise up against it in defiance of the rule of law-- and if there is good reason to suspect, as there is, that some segments of both sides are representing as their version of a democratic alternative what is, in effect, an alternative to democracy-- how can one determine the right or the good anymore?

The answer should be easy for any democrat: you must side with the people.  Advocates of democracy have all already, even if implicitly, contracted to avow that "the people" will never mean the empowered, the enriched, the entitled or the privileged.  Rather, "the people" will always mean the least advantaged in any democracy worthy of the name; correspondingly and a fortiori, "the people" will mean most of all the desaparecidos.

For the people, for our desaparecidos and those making themselves visible and vulnerable for the sake of our desaparecidos, we are obliged to demand a truth-telling.  Not the sort that is accomplished by police investigation or trial by jury or even civilian oversight, but rather the sort that can only be accomplished by a collectively-enjoined, collectively-enforced and collectively-endorsed structural evaluation and indictment of our justice system.

The United States desperately needs to legislate (as the Carnegie Council suggested earlier this year) exactly the sort of thing that many transitional democracies in the latter part of the 20th instituted, namely, a truth commission.  We need to do so, first and foremost, because we are not worthy of the name "democracy" anymore.  If we have any sincere interest in retaining that name, we need to be forced to collectively acknowledge the reality of our most protracted and covert engagement, our Antiblack Dirty War, as well as its consequence in the form of millions upon millions of black and brown desaparecidos.

As Eric Liu wrote earlier this year, presciently, the greatest obstacle to the establishment of a truth commission in the United States is that "it would be hard... hard to start and hard to finish."  Liu writes:
We Americans can be a bit lazy when it comes to messy civic and historical truths. We want our stories — and our Story — to have happy endings. We want reconciliation on the cheap.
Reconciliation is never cheap.  Truth, even less so.  Let's call for an accounting of these United States, all of us.  And if we do not, let's not stand in the way of those who opt to speak in the language of the unheard.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Maybe I'm not understanding your point clearly, but this reads too much like a carte blanche to prostesters rather than a call to responsible protesting,. To brush the kind of violence some of the baltimore protesting had under some elaborate justification of a necessary counter to 'a dirty war' or the language of the unheard? I think that's disgenous, academic overjustification, or a denial of agency and true moral accountability at worst. there's more deliberately cruel intentions in this video than anything you posted in your post, at least my reading of it.

https://www.facebook.com/disturbreality/videos/984668071577270

furthermore, I think it's presumptuous to say that witholding from the public the government's internal report of what went on during Freddie Gray's transport is undemocratic. (a fact, i believe, is reinforced by how hard the prosecutor came down on those police involved after the fact.) democracy is more than the tyranny of the majority (disadvantaged majority or not); due process is required, and not releasing the report immediately could prove pivotal to that process, as any early report could give witnesses ample opportunity to lie, cover their butts, or massage their stories to get away with or conceal what really happened during Freddie Gray's arrest and transport.