On Monday night, Charlotte police officers shot and killed Michael Laney. Laney was handcuffed in police custody at the time of his murder. In nearly all mainstream coverage of this police execution, journalists have named Laney as an “armed robbery suspect,” because he was riding a red scooter apparently matching a description of one used in a robbery in the area the week before. Charlotte Observer makes a point of underlining the “precarity” of the officers’ situation (“They were in fear for their lives”), as if poor people of color everywhere in the United States (to say nothing of the state of affairs here in the United Kingdom and Europe) were not in a constant state of fearing-for-their-lives at the hands of a policy of institutionally racialized violence, in particular the systemic criminalization of Black bodies, who are always guilty, never to be proven innocent, the police execution itself serving as due enforcement of the law. “It just got to the point where the officer felt he had lost control of the situation,” [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe] said [of Anthony Holzauer officer who killed Laney]. “We’re talking about a firearm. We very well could be here, talking about the loss of two officers.”
There is absolutely no mistaking the meaning of this comment: the life of a potentially dangerous Black man (and it must be understood that under the white supremacist police state, all Black men are potentially dangerous) is forfeit in the face of “the loss of two officers.” “Why didn’t they shoot him in the leg?” Laney’s nephew asks at the end of the article. Tina Laney, Michael Laney’s mother, replies: “I don’t know.” The state could not be clearer about which lives it determines to be valuable, worthy of the protection of the “law,” and which lives it deems always and absolutely killable, without impunity.
From Dion the Socialist:
First, we heard someone had been shot. This was my first thought anyway. I was kind of shaken up by the fact that I had literally missed being in the area of the shooting by about ten minutes. Then, the chatter we heard was that it was the police who shot someone. Still, I assumed they’d shot the perp they were looking for.
Some lady walked past us and said “yall look scared.” We asked her if she knew what happened. That’s when she told us that the kid was being chased by some people and the police were called to help him. Somehow, the police ended up shooting the kid. The police shot the victim when they were called to help him.
That’s when I first heard the brother yelling at the police. He was saying that they shot his brother and that his brother didn’t have a gun.The police shot him even though he was unarmed. That’s when the coroner’s truck showed up (I think) and I decided to blog it so I could keep up with what was happening. This is also when more of the kid’s family showed up. I’m assuming the kid was a teen because his older brother only looked about mid twenties. His mother was screaming and crying at this point, as well as a younger cousin of his. It was heartbreaking.
His brother had a gun at one point. That’s when Corbin and I went back to our car. The chatter was getting louder though so we got out again and got closer to where we could see the crime scene. I saw them load the body.
I was approached by two or three detectives who asked if I lived in the house I was standing in front of at the time. That’s when I told them where I lived and asked if we could get to our house. The brother came up to the detectives and started yelling about how “you’re not gonna get away with this” and “he was handcuffed when you shot him.”
“We’re not going to let you put us in handcuffs anymore. Why would anyone let you put them in handcuffs when this is what you do? You handcuff him and shoot him in the back of the head. If you want head shots, I can give you head shots. I can put something on your head.” Detectives sent me to my car at this point and told me I could drive through and get home. As I was walking, I heard him say “one of yall cuffed him, the other said ‘he’s got a gun’ and yall shot him in the back of his head.”
When I got home, I could still hear his mother crying and screaming.
I can’t do this anymore. I can’t listen to his mother crying anymore and his brother screaming.
I want to talk about calls and faces. Whose calls and faces we hear and see, answer and don’t answer. Michael Laney called the police to help him, and they killed him. Many women and trans women, often of color, call the police for help and find themselves framed as suspects, if not outright assaulted, by the force they’ve called to their aid. Some people call, but no one listens. For some faces, you shoot first, ask questions never. “My world is empty without you, baby,” the Supremes sing. Like most great love songs, what’s at stake here is love, inter-relationality, and inter-responsibility as the supreme (!) form of justice. “And as I go my way alone / I find it hard for me to carry on / I need your strength / I need your tender touch / I need the love, my dear / I miss so much.” Emmanuel Levinas tells us that the face-to-face encounter is the basis of all ethics, all ethics being based in a responsibility for the other, the necessarily assymetrical and vulnerable relationship between the I-and-thou, in which the first demand of the face of the other is—don’t kill me. But a materialist radicalization of Levinas’ ethics is urgently—sorely, because we are sore—needed. Although Levinas, like most European humanist philosophers of his tradition, avoids specific discussions around politics of race or gender, still, what Levinas tells us about the fragility and killability of the other is inseparable from the Jewish diasporic experience particularly after the Shoah out of which Levinas is always writing, just as any discussion of the “other” in European philosophy must be inseparable from the logic of racial supremacy and the history of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery and capitalistic exploitation that is at the foundation of the European humanist tradition and the discursive production of that other. Levinas writes:
The emergence, in the life lived by the human being (and it is here that the human, as such, begins—pure eventuality, but from the start an eventuality that is pure and holy), of the devoting-of-oneself-to-the-other. In the general economy of being in its inflection back upon itself, a preoccupation with the other, even to the point of sacrifice, even to the possibility of dying for him or her; a responsibility for the other. Otherwise than being! It is this shattering of indifference—even if indifference is statistically dominant—this possibility of one-for-the-other, that constitutes the ethical event. When human existence interrupts and goes beyond its effort to be—its Spinozan conatus essendi—there is a vocation of an existing-for-the-other stronger than the threat of death: the fellow human being’s existential adventure matters to the I more than its own, posing from the start the I as responsible for the being of the other…
But what Western humanism still does not want to face—if we are going to talk about the face to face, about assymetrical relations, about vulnerability and killability—is the fact that in its history, the emergence in the life lived by the human being, the Spinozan conatus essendi, has never been the devoting-of-oneself-to-the-other, but the devoting-of-oneself-to-the-killing-and-exclusion-of-the-other. The preoccupation with the other in the story of power has been akin to the preoccupation of a homeowner with an imagined burglar, the preoccupation of a king with an usurper or barbarian. The only sacrifice inherent to the ontology of justice in this tradition is the ritualized sacrifice of such otherized bodies to state violence-as-order, order-as-violence.
Levinas admits the possibility that “indifference is statistically dominant,” but only as an aside, and we are meant to take it with a grain of salt, so to speak—a grain of salt right in the wound. We’re meant to understand, despite this cleared-throat parenethetical, that the true being-as-otherwise-than-being is the shattering of indifference, infinite responsibility as infinite justice, etc.
But his aside is where we should remain. We should get stuck here, because we are stuck here. Indifference is not only statistically dominant, it is systematically dominant, and this is where the ethics begins when we bring Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality to ethics. When the powerful begin dying for the powerless, when the rich begin dying for the poor, when white police officers begin dying to protect poor Black men, then perhaps we can start talking about a “vocation of an existing-for-the-other stronger than the threat of death.” But when will that happen? Holzhauer shot Michael Laney in the back of the head. The European liberal humanist philosophical tradition still operates under an internalist narrative of enlightened European universal (raceless) subjects vs. absolute other, even when the evidence to the contrary is right in their faces. That there is not nearly enough incorporation of the feudal, imperial and colonial histories of violence that is the foundation of that tradition means such histories still barely register in the present culture that it has produced and upholds (histories that the culture continues to profit from, has become powerful only through, remains powerful only through).
Always: the Other, the Other, the Other. Sometimes I read the word other and I want to scream at the page: I am real, my body is real, the life I live is real, we are here. We are literally incapable of looking the face of the other in the face. Looking our repressed history in the face.
Have to write this fast or not at all, no writing this without screaming, no writing this without weeping.
Recently I had to read Derrida’s “Force of Law,” and I don’t actually know if it’s possible for me to express how much the text frustrated me to read. How much an abstracting conceptualization of law and violence underlining the originary mythic violence and divine violence of law, and law in the wake of the Shoah, while nevertheless carefully avoiding overspecific talk—singularity, singularity, singularity—about the material conditions of originary violence at the beginning of law and the invention of lawful and unlawful bodies—the production of racialized, gendered and consequently dehumanized others at the beginning of every empire, every in democracy, every non-democracy, every state, every civic organization of any size—and if indeed there is, as Derrida writes, no law without its enforceability, no law without applied force, can we not also say then that there is no law without the subject and without subordination, without the one against whom we apply our force, that the law relies on this bringing to bear of force upon a body, and when Derrida asks, then, how can we determine what is just force and what is violent force, what is legitimate violence and what is illegitimate violence—and you know the answer is there is no fucking difference—when the entire text is all about calling out the use of legitimized state violence in Nazism for the purpose of ethnic genocide—made me very, very tired. What fatigues me is: the horizon. The à-venir, always the à-venir. The justice to come. The impossible justice which is always about to come. Not here, not yet, about to come. (But it will never come, and if it does come, it will never come for you, justice is just-us.)
“My world is empty without you, babe. My world is empty without you.” It’s the you-of-justice, the Levinasian-thou who could kill me and doesn’t, the you-of-justice that loves me and is responsible for me—that the world is empty without. That my world is empty without. “From this old world, I try to hide my face. But from this loneliness, there’s no hiding place.” Can’t hide my face from the abjection, the keening alienation, of a world without my loving-you, my responsible-you, the you-of-justice. I try to hide my face. I can’t hide my face. “I need love more than before; I can hardly carry on anymore.”
The problem is, the you-of-justice is also the you-of-injustice; the you that doesn’t love me, the you that can kill me and will, the you that isn’t responsible for my life, could give a shit if I die, better if I’m dead. The law is constructed on this very you. And when you try to hide your face from it, they shoot you in the head. (See also: Travyon Martin.) In Berlin, F. and I went to the Jewish Museum. The most important thing that we learned, we already knew, but it’s important to keep learning what you already know: that Europeans have been systematically killing and excluding Jewish bodies from its inception, that there is no Europe without this murderous otherizing. What we think of as law does not exist without it. The law has never been lawful. The law has never been for us. There has never been another world. When Judith Butler wrote, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” But we’re not facing it. We don’t face it. We also undo each other, but on purpose, because the undoing of certain bodies more than others is an integral part of our power relations and social relations. Who undoes whom? Who does (produces) whom? The thing is, we are missing something. We are missing something. We are missing something.
J. Cole, who grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, knows that we’re missing something. That’s why in his song, sampling Lee Fields’ cover of the Supremes song, he takes out the words “without you.” Now all he has to say is: “world is empty.” The original title implies a condition; the world is empty without you, but if you are here, the world isn’t empty anymore; I need you, I need your love, I can’t carry on without you. Without the you-of-justice. The you-of-the-beloved, who is now dead. Cole’s song, the last verse of which is about a shooting to which the state is entirely indifferent (“a stray bullet got his lungs struck / and the governer couldn’t give one fuck”), has given up on the you-of-justice. Is tired of white philosopher-kings saying, but look at the horizon, at the justice-to-come. No: the world is just empty. “Col’ world, no blanket,” he says. No blanket, no shelter. The you-of-justice has not come. The you-of-the-loving-beloved is dead. The world is empty. (Yet the sample finishes the sentence, singing the rest of the line, so that the hope of the you-of-justice remains there, its possibility a haunting.) But the you-of-justice (…my world is empty….) has not come (…without you…). And even if it does come (…yooooouuuuu….), what’s to say it will come for us (…you…)?
Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”:
The failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will, but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo.
It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination. If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singuarly disadvantaged would also benefit. In addition, it seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action.
It is not ncessary to believe that a political consensus to focus on the lives of the most disadvantaged will happen tomorrow in order to recenter discrimination discourse at the intersection. It is enough, for now, that such an effort would challenge the complacency that accompanies belief in the effectiveness of this framework. By so doing, we may develop language which is critical of the dominant view and which provides some basis for unifying activity. The goal of this activity should be to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups for whom it can be said: “When they enter, we all enter.”
Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of 4th of July for the Negro”:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.