The Black Body is Always a Threat: White Racial Paranoia Killed Eric Garner
I have not written about the videotaped killing of Eric Garner by the New York Police Department--and their subsequent efforts to cover up the crime--because I did not want to contribute to the online necropolis of black and brown people unjustly killed by white American racism.
I have not watched the video of Eric Garner's death. I also would not have looked in the casket of Brother Emmett Till. I make that choice not because of a fear or disgust towards the corpse. My choice is also not one driven by some high-minded claim about a disgust at the spectacular pornography of death and its relationship to the black body.
I worry that to write about the killing of Eric Garner is to give the theft of his life power over me. I know that such a claim is intellectually specious. One cannot deny the fact of gravity because they choose to not think about it.
The naked reveal: meditations on black death are mentally and spiritually exhausting.
The "racism beat" can and does kill those who walk it. White supremacy extracts a high cost.
Moreover, what else is there left to say? Yet, the deed remains a tired repetition which still needs to be performed.
Black life is cheap in America. The historical irony is, of course, that the fluctuations in the value placed on black life, and the labor output it produced, were the basis of America's economy for centuries.
The blues sensibility of black folks has made us very comfortable with death and suffering. In many ways, we are numb to it. Our numbness does not mean that we do not feel hurt, pain, suffering, or anger at how violence against the black body is a routine fixture in American culture.
America was and remains a lynching society--where black bodies were once hung from trees, burned alive, cut apart, or otherwise brutalized by blood thirsty white mobs comprised of men, women, and children, now black people are shot dead by white cops and white street vigilantes.
Numbness here is a lack of surprise at how white racism kills innocent black and brown people, and how then the latter are made into criminals, and those who commit the heinous act are somehow "victims" of "reverse racism". The madness and insanity of colorblind racism in the post civil rights era is encapsulated by that process: America is so sick with white supremacy that calling white racists to account is somehow worse than the social evils they have committed.
White supremacy is a type of social insanity because through the deeply connected processes of the white racial frame, the White Gaze, and white privilege, it can invert and twist reality to suit the agenda of those who have, what George Lipsitz famously described as, a "possessive investment in whiteness".
Eric Garner's killing by the New York Police Department was videotaped. Like the decades-earlier Rodney King case, the visual reference should provide indisputable evidence of white on black police brutality. And as it did in the King case, white racist logic transforms the indisputable and obvious into doubt.
For example, Fox News lies and distorts in an effort to excuse-make for the killing of Eric Garner. The New York Daily News's Denis Hamill denies the obvious by suggesting that reckless and wanton criminal behavior by the police in black and brown communities can somehow be separated from institutional and interpersonal white racism. The online sewers of the Right-wing have instinctively defended Eric Garner's killing by the New York Police Department.
Once again, in the Right-wing media echo chamber authoritarian idealization and idolization of police authority combines with white racism to legitimate white on black murder. Because racism and conservatism are one and the same thing in the post civil rights era, there can be no other outcome.
The White Gaze is almost magical in its ability to commit acts of transmutation on the truth, twisting and distorting it, to serve the political, psychic, emotional, and social needs of whiteness.
The result? The truth-claims of black and brown folks about the reality that is white racism, as well as the contours of life in a white dominated society, are dismissed. Black and brown folks are made into the crazy ones, the overly sensitive, the reverse racists, grievance mongers, or "anti-white".
Eric Garner's slotting in the black necropolis was committed by the same logic that justified the murder of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Davis, and Kenneth Chamberlain Sr..
In the United States, the black body is a crime. The black body deserves punishment. The black body is somehow dangerous and especially provocative. To be in the black body means that you are de facto a criminal until proven innocent. The legal dictate of innocent until proven guilty is inverted. Black humanity is existential criminality.
In the White racial imagination, Eric Garner provoked his own killing, Trayvon Martin's iced tea and candy were deadly weapons, Renisha McBride should have been shot in the face because she knocked on a stranger's door, Jonathan Ferrell was a giant black beast who scared the police, and Jordan Davis was "disrespectful" and "uppity", his "loud" music constituting an assault and threat that should be met with lethal force by any "reasonable" person. Lynching victims were killed by the same white logic too. They transgressed white authority and white norms. In doing so, the black lynching victim committed a type of suicide.
Following the Rodney King trial, the philosopher Judith Butler struggled to make sense of how the White Gaze can legitimate white on black racial violence in the face of obvious photographic (and other) evidence that clearly shows the black and brown body as the victim and not the perpetrator of a crime.
She frames her confusion in the following way:
The defense attorneys for the police in the Rodney King case made the argument that the policemen were endangered, and that Rodney King was the source of that danger. The argument they made drew from many sources, comments he made, acts he refused to perform on command, and the highly publicized video recording taken on the spot and televised widely before and during the trial.
During the trial, the video was shown at the same time that the defense offered a commentary, and so we are left to presume that some convergence of word and picture produced the "evidence" for the jurors in the case. The video shows a man being brutally beaten, repeatedly, and without visible resistance; and so the question is, How could this video be used as evidence that the 'body being beaten was itself the source of danger, the threat of violence, and, further, that the beaten body of Rodney King bore an intention to injure, and to injure precisely those police who either wielded the baton against him or stood encircling him?
In the Simi Valley courtroom, what many took to be incontrovertible evidence against the police was presented instead to establish police vulnerability, that is, to support the contention that Rodney King was endangering the police. Later, a juror reported that she believed that Rodney King was in "total control” of the situation. How was this feat of interpretation achieved?
The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by that racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent of violence, one whose agency is phantasmatically implied as the narrative precedent and antecedent to the frames that are shown. Watching King, the white paranoiac forms a sequence of narrative intelligibility that consolidates the racist figure of the black man: "He had threatened them, and now he is being justifiably restrained." "If they cease hitting him, he will release his violence, and now is being justifiably restrained." King's palm turned away from his body, held above his own head, is read not as self-protection but as the incipient moments of a physical threat.
Butler continues, detailing how reality and intelligibility are distorted by white racism and the white racial frame:
It is not, then, a question of negotiating between what is "seen," on the one hand, and a "reading" which is imposed upon the visual evidence, on the other.
In a sense, the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the "truth" of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. For when the visual is fully schematized by racism, the "visual evidence" to which one refers will always and only refute the conclusions based upon it; for it is possible within this racist episteme that no black person can seek recourse to the visible as the sure ground of evidence.
Consider that it was possible to draw a line of inference from the black male body motionless and beaten on the street to the conclusion that this very body was in "total control," rife with "dangerous intention.'' The visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic, and forceful.
The white paranoiac gaze killed Eric Garner. The white paranoiac gaze is not a peripheral concept, one that only describes outliers or aberrant behavior. Rather, the white paranoiac gaze is part of a system of power relationships which legitimates and rationalizes white on black violence (institutional; cultural; economic; political; interpersonal). It is also a central element in the psychic wages of whiteness: the white paranoiac gaze sustains the lie that whiteness is innocent, noble, vulnerable, and benign.
Ultimately, the white paranoiac gaze's greatest power is how it helps to sustain the moral authority of whiteness over people of color. Eric Garner was killed in an act which exposes that lie. Unfortunately, as it has done innumerable times before, the white paranoiac gaze will find a way to justify his killing by the New York Police Department. Those white folks who are most invested in whiteness will nod their head in agreement and validation because somehow whiteness is always innocent and blackness is a dire threat.
White supremacy and the white racial frame are moral and perceptual sicknesses of the mind and soul--and those who are sick often feel that they are perfectly normal and healthy.
Reality can be cruel. White privilege protects them from the consequences of their shared lie.
How much longer can that fiction be sustained in 21st century America?