This is the third in a series of columns on political life by James Duesterberg; read more here.
On Monday, May 25th, Memorial Day, George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who had perhaps passed a counterfeit bill, was killed by the Minneapolis police. We know this because it happened in public, and as officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck, people noticed and began to record it. The video shows a surreal scene in which state violence and death simply hang in the air, seemingly a non-event even as the crowd gathers and realizes what’s happening. “You’re enjoying it,” one of the witnesses says to Chauvin, his voice betraying at once fury, disbelief and defeat. The officers just stand there, and Chauvin stares into the camera, ignoring Floyd’s pleas for his life as he snuffs it out.
Something more than murder happens here. The scene unfolds as if driven by a mad logic of tragedy; no one involved seems to think they can stop it.
On Tuesday morning the video was posted to YouTube, and soon it went viral. That evening, protests started in Minneapolis, and the next day they spread across the country. By Thursday, they had spread across the world, and the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct smoldered. On Friday, Trump retreated into a bunker, and when he came outside on Monday for a photo op outside St. John’s Church, riot police cleared protestors, journalists and Episcopal priests with tear gas, billy clubs and rubber bullets, as the Attorney General looked on. The president reiterated his promise to “dominate the streets” using “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers.” But the threat served only to quicken the impulse of revolt.
Amidst the deluge of 2020, in which crises seem not so much to pile up as to bleed into each other, this seemed to promise something else: not a rolling disaster but a clean break. Under lockdown and curfew, in cities across the country, with the streets abandoned and the stream of commerce shut off, politics rushed in to fill the vacuum. Every night at sunset in New York, quiet fell and the scene emerged in hallucinatory clarity: the banks and the stores, the granite and glass monuments to capital emptied of everything but protestors, the indigent and the cops: a scene of menace and decay, mystery and possibility.
Just as quickly, familiar scripts reemerged. “Blackout Tuesday” was a warning sign. A campaign that began in the entertainment industry went viral in the wrong kind of way: people tweeting to show their solidarity overwhelmed search results for #blm and #blacklivesmatter with black squares, “signal-boosting” with no signal to transmit. Within a week, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were kneeling in kente cloth, “Black Lives Matter” was a vertical on Netflix and the Great Corporate Awokening had gone into rapturous overdrive. “Leaders” appeared at the front of the marches, draped in weapons and costumes drawn less from history than from Instagram. On June 6th, eleven days after the first protest, a model with a beret and a megaphone marched the crowd back and forth across Manhattan’s grid, leading chants of “Peaceful, Protest” and shaking hands with the police sergeant, who marched alongside him. The next day, the mayor lifted New York’s curfew.
We know the pattern: energy flags, symbolic appeasements absorb concrete demands, “the discourse” takes over. Cynicism sets in: maybe the movement was co-opted, infiltrated, compromised from the start. This may all be true, but it is beside the point. The uprising revealed, amidst all the noise, that the desire for politics persists, and that this desire can only be met in public. Most of all, it revealed that public space is not virtual, not a metaphor, but real, concrete, out there. The thing that happened, happened in the streets; and millions of people, in thousands of cities and towns, went out looking for it. The point, in other words, is not to slot things back into a pattern but to ask, what can come next?
Liberal modernity is on the whole a story of the progressive abstraction of power: from the divine right of kings, to the representative rule of republican assemblies, to the fully anonymous and impersonal hegemony of markets. The body politic spreads out, the person of the king dissolving into symbolic code. But the existence of the police tells against this story. Police operate in the streets, not in the cloud; when you see a cop, state sovereignty is right there. You must comply with this order, or else—there is nothing virtual about it.
The police, in other words, stick out: they are at once a functional relic of the old system of disciplinary power, and a potent symbol of the new regime of surveillance and control. We know that most everything about our lives is implicitly public—liable to end up stored in a database or posted to the internet. In our state of hypervisibility, nothing is private, everything is on display; everything, that is, except power itself. Where, ultimately, does sovereignty lie? In this regime, what the police represent—the sovereign power of the state—is itself a scandal: not supposed to be seen, because not really supposed to exist.
This ambiguous and volatile intersection of policing, surveillance and power was on display in the “Central Park Karen” video, released just days before Floyd’s killing and the subsequent uprising. In the video, the titular woman responds with uncanny cruelty to a request by the man recording the video to leash her dog, as is legally required. As they both film each other, the woman’s hysteria seems to increase in proportion with the man’s calmness, and her threats to call the cops—though she is the one breaking the law—circle more and more insistently around the promise to tell them that it is “an AFRICAN-AMERICAN man” that is “threatening” her. What is so disturbing here is the coupling of hyper-PC language with the implicit threat to weaponize racism. The woman knows that saying the man is Black will increase the police response, and knows too that she must not display any racist prejudice herself lest she get cancelled (whoops). Her neurotic display of symbolic fidelity to the social code amplifies her concrete abuse of it, and the scene becomes a sick parody of liberal legalism, like a corporate diversity training session gone horribly wrong.
The cops, meanwhile, remain offscreen, functioning virtually: a symbol for the power the woman imagines being exercised, but does not want to have to exercise herself. She wants the cops to do it all for her, and yet on some level she must know, staring into the man’s phone as she screams “AFRICAN-AMERICAN,” that a kind of symbolic violence has already been done.
But police violence, of course, is not just symbolic. The George Floyd video confronts us with something altogether different from the ambient social dysfunction on display in the Karen videos. Here, too, the uncanny pathos of everywhere-surveillance is on display, but this time we can see what is usually offscreen.
The cops in the Floyd video seem both self-aware and indifferent, caught in the strange loop of modern sovereignty and surveillance, as if they are modeling themselves on the reality show Cops. But in the end the reality of this scene is too concrete, too real; the actions involved cannot be merely performed. What is in question here is not just the regulation of behavior, a surveillance function; it is not about prejudice or platforms but about life and death, and Chauvin’s blank face as he snuffs out Floyd’s life shows a monstrosity from which we cannot look away.
We cannot look away because the horror of the video goes beyond the traumatic and immediate identification with the victim. This is not simply another man’s act of murder; if you are an American citizen, the police officer is acting on your behalf. The cop’s presence incarnates all the abstractions of injustice into a scene of harrowing violence, and for Americans, to see this is implicitly to consent to it, unless you explicitly do not.
In this sense the scene repeats a drama that, as historians have argued, lies at the heart of American political life. Like police power, anti-Black racism relies on spectacle. And unlike other forms of ethnic or religious discrimination, it is not just expressed through visual markers but founded in it. When the transatlantic slave trade morphed into a color-based legal caste system, dark skin became not simply a sign that corresponded with enslavement but a ground that determined it. In the society that followed, one’s personhood depended on appearance. To publicly acknowledge Black personhood is thus to reveal a kind of scandal, the rotten core of the American polity hiding right on the surface.
The scene of police violence against Black people ritually repeats this scandal, revealing what it aims to suppress. Though the achievements of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act ended the legal basis for a color-based regime, its de facto persistence suggests that the problem cannot be so easily fixed—that the power expressed by such laws in fact lies elsewhere. The segregation and inequality on spectacular display in America’s cities shows how power has become at once highly dispersed and difficult to contest.
Perhaps this has been the era of Cops. A TV program created in 1989 by a man who studied for a Ph.D. in aesthetics, it was one of the first and longest-running reality shows. Cops brought the spectacle of policing into the home; breaching the barrier between public and private, it helped as well to dissolve the distinction between reality and representation. Reality shows have no need for actors precisely because, by treating everyday life as already a performance, they make everyone into an “actor.” When the networks quietly cancelled Cops in the second week of protests, it hardly mattered: the show’s vision has penetrated into the world, and footage of real cops streams 24/7 from iPhones and body cams.
So too with our present politics: when everything is political, nothing is. In such a world, we cannot step off the public stage, and so we do not know how to step on to it. Protests, call-outs, consciousness-raising—which have become, not coincidentally, the main venues for popular political expression in the postwar era—continually risk turning politics into blank parody, endless rearrangements of the scenery in which debates about platforms exhaust the will to do anything on them.
But the George Floyd protests have been a visceral reminder that this state of affairs is itself something that is enacted, its reality supported by political actors who represent us—and from whom we can withdraw our consent. Though Cops may be a dead symbol, policing is still—or is again—a live issue. This makes one of the main proposals to emerge from the protests, abolishing the police, neither a pipe dream nor a sure bet but rather a genuinely political proposal. It is a proposal that frames explicitly the question of power, and thus aims to halt the slow drift, recently accelerating, towards a world in which sovereignty is diffused in abstractions.
As some traditional pockets of the left have already pointed out, the end of the police could mean the beginning of something worse: officers of the state could be replaced by private armies and Amazon robocops. They could also be rendered un- or less necessary by redistributing resources; investing in education, housing and health care instead of surveillance and incarceration. Again, this is far from a quick fix. Redistributing resources does not in itself create a new polity; material equality is not the same thing as political freedom. But it can create the conditions for it. Because the goal of abolition forces us to ask how we could get there, it allows us to imagine the world concretely—to begin to build on the public stage a world we would want to live in.
Image credit: Jenny Salita (CC BY / Flickr)