The Ferguson Revolt Did Not Take Place — Richard Gilman-Opalsky
This is an edited extract from Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy From Below (out now). He will be speaking at Five Leaves bookshop, Nottingham (UK) on 16th March (more details/FB event)
The Ferguson Revolt Did Not Take Place
Black people desire to determine their own destiny. As a result, they are constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied by the police department. There is a great similarity between the occupying army in Southeast Asia and the occupation of our communities by the racist police. The armies were sent not to protect the people of South Vietnam but to brutalize and oppress them in the self-interests of the imperial powers.
—HUEY P. NEWTON, “A Functional Definition of Politics” (1969)[i]
We don’t need anybody to agree with our tactics, right? We’re disrupting business as usual. That is the whole idea. We’re not going to stand in a corner and protest, because nobody pays attention to that. We are going to disrupt your life. You are going to know that business as usual in America and the world is not going to continue while black people —unarmed black people —are literally being shot and killed by law enforcement in the street every day.
—MISKI Noor, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (2015)[ii]
The Ferguson revolt did not take place; the Baltimore revolt is proof.[iii] The Ferguson revolt did not take place because it has occurred and is still happening in different ways in other places. In so many uprisings, from Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 to the many North American slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the race riots of the 20th century, from Springfield, Illinois in 1908 to Watts, Los Angeles in 1965, to current insurrections in Ferguson 2014 and Baltimore 2015, to the Black Lives Matter disruptions at the Mall of America and Minneapolis airport in Minnesota in December 2015, there is always some part of the event that expresses disaffections carried over from the previous ones. Revolts are nodal points in the elaboration of a transformative “politics” that exceeds them. To historicize revolt by marking its beginning and its end is to cut it off from itself, to misunderstand it. In particular, the fixation on the end of revolt disguises that old quotidian hope for a retour à la normale.
Riot and revolt are difficult to predict. And yet, as soon as they break out, the reasons for their occurrence are easy to see. The hardest part of processing riot and revolt in an intellectual register is always: not why they happen, but why they do not happen (until now). They are difficult to predict because of the remarkable capacity of societies to bear the unbearable, to suffer the insufferable.
Historians have a difficult time with the continuity of discontinuous events. But we can find a close connection between any two coordinates in the history of black revolt in North America. In the recent examples of Ferguson and Baltimore, the linkages are clear (i.e. killer cops, poverty, racism). Yet, historical accounts always want to identify the start and end dates of each uprising, especially because discrete and isolated events can be treated as local aberrations, not expansive fabrics of discontent.
What if Baltimore does not begin with the case of Freddie Gray? What if Baltimore does not end in Baltimore (which we discover when it is taken up again in six months, in one year, in two years, in another city)? Each revolt is itself, as Deleuze and Guattari claimed, “an unstable condition that opens up a new field of the possible.”[iv]
But what exactly is possible here beyond the possibility of posing old questions in new ways? First of all, the whole question of revolt is thoroughly imbricated with selective concerns about violence. Violence pervades and disfigures everything from the start. Every revolt, every riot, is haunted by the figure of violence. On April 28, 2015, The Wall Street Journal declared that “violence breaks out” in Baltimore.[v] That is the basic treatment: “Violence breaks out” whenever black people revolt against racist violence. For The Wall Street Journal, there is no violence when the cops kill black people, there is no violence on Wall Street, let alone any consideration of the violence of capital more broadly. The article could have been written by the Baltimore Police Department, and the fact that it wasn’t is indicative of the depth of the problem. Bakunin’s basic understanding of revolt from 1872 far exceeds the understanding from The Wall Street Journal in 2015. Bakunin said: “To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.”[vi] Contrary to racist caricatures of insurgents as wild animals, revolt is —for the human animal —a modality of indignation, a measure of dignity.
Nonetheless, ideological and idiotic depictions of “violence” remain effective and reliable mechanisms for the disqualification of the critical content of revolt. Georg Lukács explained that “the radical and mechanical separation of the concepts of violence and economics” are the result of the fetishization of economics as a nonviolent and legal field, and the fetishization of violence as always outside economy and law.[vii] Revolt exposes the “invisible” violence of economy and law, challenging that separation. Economy and law establish themselves as the normalization of the non-violent order, so anything that opposes them is identified and condemned as violence and disorder. Voltairine de Cleyre had it right when she observed the violence of the social order: “watch a policeman arrest a shoeless tramp for stealing a pair of boots. Say to your self, this is civil order and must be preserved… Aye, I would destroy, to the last vestige, this mockery of order, this travesty upon justice!”[viii] What the revolt invites, encourages, and makes possible, is to worry less about “violence” to capital (its inanimate objects and commodities), and more about the violence of capital. A broken window, looted food, a burning bank, a burning car, are violence from the perspective of property law. From what perspective, however, is the police killing of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Jamar Clark, and so many others, called violence? So many others indeed: On August 9, Michael Brown became the 668th person killed in the US by the police in 2014, and he was far from the last. Police killed over 1,000 people in the US in 2014, and in between every killing you do hear of, there are hundreds of others you don’t. Someone is killed every day by police in the US. In fact, it’s usually several each day.[ix]
It is therefore necessary to reject all efforts to reduce each revolt to the stories of the murdered individuals who trigger them. We all know that the “Arab Spring” was not about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who lit himself on fire in December of 2010. We must try instead to see the violence in the conditions that made self-immolation appear sensible to Bouazizi. Can we ask, as Bouazizi’s sister asked: “What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?”[x] Treatments of particular cases matter, but even “justice” in a verdict, as sug- gested by the indictments of the six officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, resolves none of the everyday violence of capital and law.
Everyday violence indeed, and one which it is necessary to confront as an overwhelmingly racist violence. Angela Davis points out: “The sheer persistence of police killings of Black youth contradicts the assumption that these are isolated aberrations.” She refers to “an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.”[xi] In light of this everyday violence, which is of course not the only form of violence, revolt is patient, revolt is kind. Revolt may even appear too moderate, too restrained, and too peaceable.
Professional academics are typically part of the problem. We need less intellectual analysis of revolt, and more consideration of the active intellect of revolt, revolt as analysis itself. Can we only hear the demos when it speaks in ballots? One participant in the Baltimore revolt answered in the midst of the uprising: “They tell us when we ‘vote’ we are being heard. No THIS is an example of us young people being heard!”[xii] That revolt does not need to speak through experts, elections, figureheads, and analysts is a lesson that even the most sympathetic political scientists are slow to learn.
Academics can be helpful only if they possess a deep and abiding understanding —as did Socrates and Jacques Rancière —that intelligence is not the private property of professionals. Discourse in the form of text can be useful indeed. Rancière’s beautiful book, Hatred of Democracy, diagnoses the hatred of democracy that hides behind the professed love of democracy.[xiii] I propose the following variation on Rancière’s theme:
Those who condemn the riots secretly love them — the purported hatred of the “violence” of the riots conceals a special love for that “violence.” They love the riots they condemn, for their own reasons, most of them racist. The riots are made to serve as evidence for what liberals and conservatives already think about politics, race, class, and capital.[xiv] This is particularly clear with the media, but can also be seen throughout society (universities included) in the surrounding conversation.
Deleuze and Guattari claimed that what “we institutionalize for the unemployed, the retired, or in school, are controlled ‘situations of abandonment’.”[xv]275 This is also true of impoverished black communities throughout the US. Institutionalized abandonment and everyday violence are always more the causal factors of revolt than the personal immorality and intellect of participants.
In the Baltimore revolt of 2015, there was an early celebration of a black mother, Toya Graham, who discovered her son participating in the uprising. She chased him down in the street, grabbing him and hitting him in the head, scolding him loudly. Forget the National Guard, said her fan club, send in the moms to tame the revolt. Graham knows well what the police do to young black men like her son, but she was not applauded for concern over his well-being. Rather, she was applauded for berating and beating him in the streets. The message in her celebration was clear: Black people in revolt are like out-of-control children, and what they really need is the paternalistic power of containment.
Meanwhile, capital hides behind the scenes of revolt, staying aloof and quiet. But what of the peculiar silence of capital? Even those who acknowledge the class dimensions of the problem often do not acknowledge that capital has nothing to offer impoverished communities that face a dilapidated opportunity structure with no future.
Over 63% of Baltimore’s population is black, but the median income of the black population ($33,000) is roughly half that of whites in the city. Maryland is the richest state in the country, which exacerbates the already abysmal conditions of life for the poor. Young black men in Baltimore were unemployed at the star- tling rate of 37% in 2013. Compare that with 10% unemployment for white men of the same age. One-third of Maryland residents living in the state’s prisons come from the mostly black communities of Baltimore.[xvi]
Impoverished black people in the US don’t need to be taught how to stand up for themselves. Everyday life shapes and informs the knowledge and experience of the disaffected, and indicates that “the field of the possible lives elsewhere.”[xvii] You cannot simultaneously reproduce everyday life and transform it. Revolt understands that basic logic.
Thinking about May ’68, Deleuze and Guattari argued: “There can only be creative solutions. These are the creative redeploy- ments that can contribute to a resolution of the current crisis and that can take over where a generalized May ’68, amplified bifurcation or fluctuation, left off.”[xviii]
Baltimore 2015 takes over where Ferguson 2014 left off, keeping Ferguson (and Springfield 1908 and Watts 1965) on the list of unfinished business. But the creative solutions and redeployments that Deleuze and Guattari call for may still be premature. Creativity is a productive activity, but there is still much to abol- ish. Perhaps the abolition of racism calls for creative solutions, and perhaps abolitionists need to get more creative. Yet, we cannot create new worlds without transformation, and transformation implicates abolition. Hegel and Marx understood well that there is an abolitionist force in the negations of transformation. The abolition of old forms of life, political institutions, and social structures implies the creation of new ones, implies creativity. There is always an abolition of old understandings in the creation of new ones, even if, in Hegel’s sense, the new understandings carry forth much from the old. And there is always an abolition of the present state of things in the construction of a new state of things, even if some things stay the same.
Those who condemn the revolts actually love them because they get to condemn a “violence” that justifies the violence they defend, the violence they love. Critics of revolt do not, therefore, fear the violence, but rather the transformative potentialities of revolt, its abolitionist (and creative) content. Their wager and hope is that nothing they love will be abolished, that the present state of things will be defended against every revolt. And if the existing order is maintained against revolt, as it often is, that existing order will be haunted by the specters of future revolt. Defenders of this present capitalist society know well that surviving a revolt is not busting the ghosts, is not laying them finally to rest. The conditions that give rise to revolt, left unchanged, also leave the abolitionist impetus in place. If the imprecators of upheaval tremble, perhaps they know: Efforts to realize abolitionist dreams continue on where previous ones leave off. Nothing is over and done.
[i] Newton, Huey P., “A Functional Definition of Politics, January 17, 1969” in The Huey P. Newton Reader, ed. David Hilliard and Donald Weise (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), p. 149
[ii] Noor, Miski, “Interview on CNN with Carol Costello about the Black Lives Matter Protest Planned for the Mall of America” (12/22/2015), accessed January 11, 2016, http://archives.cnn.com/trANSCrIPtS/1512/22/cnr.02.html .
[iii] This short chapter is a détournement of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s shorter essay, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place” in Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, ed. Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).
[iv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 209.
- [v] Calvert, Scott and Maher, Kris, “Violence Breaks Out in Baltimore After
Freddie Gray’s Funeral,” accessed May 6, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/violence-breaks-out-in-baltimore-as-freddie-gray-is-laid-to-rest-1430169131 .
[vi] Bakunin, Mikhail, “On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx,” accessed January 7, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/reference/ archive/bakunin/works/1872/karl-marx.htm.
[vii] Lukács, Georg, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: The MIt Press, 1988), p. 240
[viii] de Cleyre, Voltairine, The Votairine de Cleyre Reader (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 2004), pp. 71-72
[x] Reuters, “Peddler’s martyrdom launched Tunisia’s revolution (1/19/11),” accessed January 8, 2016, http://af.reuters.com/article/libyaNews/idAFLDE70G18J20110119?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true
[xi] Davis, Angela Y., Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 77. 271 Ibid.
[xii] The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary (New York: Research and Destroy, 2015), no page numbers
[xiii] Rancière, Jacques, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London and New York: Verso, 2006).
[xiv] In short, liberals and conservatives hold in common that procedural and electoral politics and reform are sufficient, that racism is a shrinking or minor difficulty, that socio-economic class positions are more-or-less negotiable through hard work and upward mobility, and that capital is either neutral or good, respectively.
[xv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211
[xvi] Malter, Jordan, “Baltimore’s Economy in Black and White,” accessed January 8, 2016, http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/29/news/economy/baltimore-economy/index.html
[xvii] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211.