Interview with George Ciccariello-Maher – by Anna Curcio and Lenora Hanson
Our first question has to do with the way that Ferguson exploded after Michael Brown’s murder and the police response. What are the social dynamics that led to and preceded these intense riots? What led to the uprising of the black community and how can you explain the violence of the police response there?
To get into the broad historical context, especially for those not in the US, it is important to say that police violence here is not an abstract or universal phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that has focused on certain peoples and certain “problem” populations, specifically although not solely on African-American and black Americans. When we look at Ferguson and the fact that it is a suburb of St. Louis, this in historical and racial terms is already in many ways a point of conflict and racial tension. Ferguson itself was almost entirely white until the 1970s, but has become a city that is in its large majority black, around 70-65%, and yet the police force is almost universally white. And when we look at some of the recent FBI data has come out we find that, for example, 92% of those arrested in Ferguson for disorderly conduct are black, which gives a good insight into the way that people are systematically harassed. People in Ferguson are harassed by police and petty charges like disorderly conduct are used by them as a social control over this population. And again what we have is not an abstract problem but a manifestation and repetition of historical, white, supremacist police violence in which black lives are worth nothing and black death is almost always legitimized. And this is continuing to play out with the media narrative that follows, as if coherence were completely irrelevant, the 3-4 police explanations that serve to legitimize this violence against this young man to the public. They say Michael Brown was maybe involved in a robbery, which the police claim was earlier that day although he seems to be wearing different clothes if that’s him in the videos they released; maybe he was jaywalking, which again needs to be understood in a context where the police are harassing people for minor crimes. And, of course, this makes it very clear to the white populations nearby that this is a question of black or white, just as when the police released images of the so-called “looters” in Ferguson, which they did to remind everyone that police were out there protecting property against the so-called violence of others.
You referenced “white flight” in the Midwest above. Can you talk about its relationship to deindustrialization, which has important class implications, and how that “white flight” has produced class and racial tensions in Ferguson?
We’re talking about the geography of race, and race is always a phenomenon that manifests geographically. The way that it manifests in the US more often than not has been the flight of whites into the suburbs, which began as a process a long time ago but especially in the periods of deindustrialization in the 1970s when it accelerated. So you have large cities in the Midwest and elsewhere, such as where I live in Philadelphia, where what you find in this so-called post-racial era is that race is more likely to be coded geographically than it is to be coded openly in racial terms. So whether it is through a coded language of school districts or dangerous areas or moving to the suburbs to give your kids opportunities, what we’re talking about are the ways that segregation is actually an increasing phenomenon in the U.S. Ferguson is clearly one example of those places that once was exclusively white and has now become a predominately black town; so you know, we’re talking about another example of this geographic manifestation where the police are there not just to police the population but also the borders. The function of the police is to keep people in line and in their zone or in their lane as it were, and Ferguson, a city that went from being a white city to a black city, is a city where the population has to be terrorized by police, but where the police also have to keep the population away from whiter suburbs in that area.
Because you were just talking about the police and the black community, can you suggest what the people in Ferguson are bringing to the streets, or what kinds of experiences and feelings they are bringing there?
This is one thing that many white observers but also liberal observers just don’t grasp about the police killing of blacks in the States, which is that it is always embedded in this long historical trajectory that is not even a long memory. I mean, we are even talking about the highly publicized murders of at least 5 black men in the last month by police in this country, so this is a constant trajectory of police murder. And the off-the-cuff expressions of people in Ferguson attest to that when they say that this is about everything from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to the present, that is a long trajectory, and the failure to recognize it is a failure to grasp the depth of rage in these moments. That rage is in many ways a product of feeling slightly helpless about the constant repetition of this violence, but is also the dedication and the insistence that something must be done, and that in the absence of legal reform which accomplishes anything, in the absence of electing officials and congressman accomplishing anything, maybe these rebellions and riots will work. Which, historically speaking, is actually not a terribly inaccurate judgment if you look at cases throughout U.S. history. Riots and rebellions have played a huge role in, if not directly, then at least indirectly in transforming the political sphere and political action and leading to concrete results. If we look at Ferguson we see the withdrawal of the St Louis county sheriff from policing the situation as a direct result of this intervention in the streets and the conflicts with this heavily militarized police force.
Can we follow up on your point about how liberal whites deal with situations of violence or the question of violence in protests? It seems that within the past day or two the media has latched on to images of police officers marching with protesters, giving preference to vigils and peaceful actions over what appeared in the beginning to be not only riots but also looting and protests in the streets. What does such privileging of “peacefulness” over “violence” do to obscure the history of racism in the U.S. but also to misunderstand what it might take to respond to that history?
Absolutely. We should be perfectly clear. There’s a headline now from when the state highway patrol went to the protests yesterday, and the headline was “Police Join Protests.” We should be perfectly clear: the police were not joining the protests. This is counter-insurgency, this is a historic strategy of counter-insurgency that involves backing away from the heavy-handed, iron fist of military response, which is what the police force brought initially, and a turning to the velvet glove or soft strategy to disarm protest. This doesn’t change the fact that the goal is to disarm the protest and weaken the mobilization of the people and to do so through cooptation, and that should be understood as a starting point. It is not a good thing that the police went to the protests, although it is a less brutal phenomenon. And this gets to the second part, which is that what is going on in Ferguson is not about the militarization of police. That militarization is a huge phenomenon that has occurred over the past decade, especially since Sept. 11, through which police departments acquired military grade technology through the Department of Defense, through grants and counter-terrorism funding. But if the terrorist threat never existed or if it dissipates, this military hardware is there and asking to be used. The old saying goes that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is exactly what we’re seeing in the streets with these county sheriffs deploying armored personnel carriers. If you’re sitting on the top of one of these personnel carriers looking through a scope of a sniper rifle, then everything looks like an insurgent. Everything looks like an enemy combatant. And that’s crucial but its not at the essence of what is going on; because if we look at the essence of what is going on with the militarization of police we neglect the fact that the police of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were not militarized but were still racist, brutal occupiers of black communities. And so we need to keep both these threads in our analysis, while avoiding the easy recourse to simply saying that we need to reform the police or take away their tanks. Again, Ferguson police are almost entirely white and policing a black community, doing so brutally and terroristically. Taking away their heavy weaponry won’t solve that. We need to understand this within the long-term history of white supremacy, which is one of continuity rather than change. And we can pair that up with the transformation of policing, which has indeed been a progressive process of militarization.
To your point about the continuity of race relations and violence in the US, we could propose two poles that could be mapped onto Ferguson, MO and New Orleans, LA. So on the one hand in New Orleans, the impact of Hurricane Katrina attested to the mass, systemic abandonment of a largely black population, and in Ferguson, we see the intervention of direct violence on the part of the police applied to a black population. How might these two instances point to an important historical relation in the U.S. that suggest that when there’s not direct violence, there is always a consistent environment of abandonment?
This question of abandonment versus direct violence is actually more of a spectrum. I’ve never been to Ferguson, but my guess is that it’s somewhere in between in the sense that in the course of becoming a heavily black city that it was increasingly abandoned. And yet this was not simply a city that was sealed off and allowed to govern itself. It was structured according to this systematic police violence as many black cities are. And so that two really work hand in hand. So understood in the long context we’re talking about firstly, in the most recent history, this process of deindustrialization, as a process that renders huge numbers of the U.S. population irrelevant to the process of production, and these populations are almost entirely black; in other words these become surplus populations. And the response of the state is to incarcerate them on a massive level or to essentially warehouse them in facilities and maybe then extract some surplus through forced labor. But the point is really about warehousing and abandonment on a certain level. Seen in the broader context this is also a shift in the historical tension, especially in the 20th century, which has to do with the process of formal abolition and the anxiety that results immediately upon abolition, which is namely what do we do with these former slaves. And here again, continuity is a huge part of the aftermath of slavery, which was an aftermath of sharecropping and also the immediate turn to convict leasing in which prisoners could be could be legitimately enslaved thanks to the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And this entire process of developing police institutions begins directly with that continuity of slavery. The police are a part of this process, because they emerge as an institution in response to the threat posed by free black labor, the mobility of free black labor after abolition. And so this is really one long historical complex that we see playing out.
To pick up on this point about incarceration we might think about the popularity of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow”, which has been important in the U.S. for demonstrating that continuity between the end of slavery and the advent of mass incarceration. But much of the response to that book has been to advocate for reforming the law around incarceration. How does Ferguson demonstrate the failure of something like legal reform to address the history of race in the U.S.?
On the one hand the question of reform is the constant temptation in these moments and it goes hand in hand with the question of pacification and of essentially shutting up and silencing the people who are in the streets in Ferguson, who are after all some of the most silenced people already. And you have this really unfortunate tendency of liberal commentators to engage in this double silencing, when they say, “yes maybe its legitimate to resist and protest, but we would really like to police and dictate the terms of that protest.” They make certain claims about understanding how social change occurs, when actually those claims are almost entirely wrong. The way that social change occurs is often through these moments of mass eruption and spontaneous riots and the way change often unfolds is through this attempt by reformists to co-opt them. So on the one hand I think we definitely need to be hesitant and resistant and critical to these reformist temptations. We also need to recognize that they are inevitably going to surface and that’s actually more likely how change is going to occur. But the danger, especially in this situation, is the question of what kind of reforms are we talking about? Are we talking about reforms to police training, about sensitivity training for police, are we talking about some kind of quotas to change the demographic nature of the Ferguson police department? The reality is that the function of the police will remain the same. You can have a police department that is entirely black and the function of that police department will still be white supremacist, not only because they protect property but because of the relationship between property and whiteness in the U.S. Police protect whiteness as well, they uphold the color line by dictating which populations are subject to violence and which are not, and which populations need to be contained and which do not. So the reforms won’t really solve these questions and this again brings us again to the question of so-called post-racial America, in which the election of a president allegedly tells us a great deal about the nature of society. In reality in can be understood in dialectical terms as the opposite, it can be the latest in a new strategy to counteract popular resistance to white supremacy and to obscure that fact. So we have Obama going on television saying things that are correct about the police in regards to the protest, but also saying that there’s never any excuse for violence against the police. Which even just on the face of it, even though people were eating it up, was a nonsensical statement, because it doesn’t say anything about the Civil Rights struggles in which the police were violently abusing black Americans. Even Obama himself would have to recognize the legitimacy of self- defense in these things. So reformism also doesn’t tell us much about how to respond in the present to those very same phenomena. The danger of reformism is easy to see in the request to the FBI to handle investigations; the FBI, I mean, come on, this is not a serious suggestion. And yet, many so-called civil rights organizations are going in for that as opposed to going in for claims about more substantive community control over police, which themselves often are too reformist. These community oversight boards are often toothless institutions that don’t have any potential to fire violence and abusive police officers.
Can we think about the frequent murders of blacks by police that you mentioned above as a strategy to control the black community that works together with the mass incarceration?
Absolutely. And I think mass incarceration is not just about prisons, it is the police and prisons as a complex. It is a process of terrorizing communities and gathering nearly at random certain members of those communities to put them in prison—we say nearly at random but again 92% of those arrested in Ferguson for disorderly conduct are black. It doesn’t even need to be said that the statistics show that white people don’t get charged with disorderly conduct because it’s the kind of bullshit charge that you throw at someone who is either talking back to you, or as Michael Brown allegedly was, jaywalking in the street. If you’ve ever been near a police officer in the States, and I’m guessing many other places, all you have to do is question their authority to really see the fury that they are prepared to unleash. This is because what the system requires is that they have not only the legal force that they’re granted, but also a discretion on the street which is really a sovereign discretion to decide who is going to jail and who is not, who is subject to including legal violence and who is not subject to that violence. I myself walking down the street am not judged to be subject to that violence for the most part, but any black youth is always already potentially a legitimate target for violence. And so policing is part of this mass incarceration system that inflicts terror on these communities, that destroys communities and tears families apart just as slavery did for the most part, and it is really an attempt to contain through submission these communities. It is not simply to take away a large percentage of their numbers, which it does, but it is also to terrorize and force the others into submission. You have had, as I said, young black men killed several times in the past month but what stands out about Ferguson is not the killing but the resistance, and the really truly heroic nature of the resistance. This is not a resistance of thousands of people, but a resistance of small numbers in a small town who regardless of all of the force and all the attention and attempts at cooptation are in the streets every single night, who are responding in many ways to the police attempts at cooptation which were touted in the media yesterday, by again rebelling last night and saying we’re not going to buy this line about police being on our side.
In response to what you said above about the resistance of small numbers of people, we could talk about the importance of subjectivization in what is going on in Ferguson, or in other words how the black community in Ferguson has been able to transform a fear of police control into a will to take to the street. Sometimes this transformation happens but not always, so what could account for this change? And has the preceding event of the murder of Trayvon Martin contributed to that capacity?
That’s right. We’re in a historical moment that needs to be understood as very specific and the same time, which is part of a long historical trajectory. This means that the emotional response to another killing in your community of a young black man is the cause for anger but also the cause for desperation and a sort of helplessness, as I said before, that maybe nothing will happen to change this, that this is constant and not a new thing or an exception. It’s a constant reality but at the same time the very same course of helplessness gives rise to sense that there’s not a great deal to be lost by resisting. If you’re talking about putting yourself in the shoes of a young black man, who merely as a result of being a young black man has a 30% chance of spending a good portion of their lives in prison, there the stakes of continuing the status quo are almost as high as the stakes of going out and resisting, even if you’re not guaranteed any kind of transformation. So you have to combine that underlying situation with the sense that we are breaking out of the post-racial hypnosis that reached a peak around 2008 with the election of Obama. Ever since then the morning of Jan. 1 in 2009, just before Obama took office, Oscar Grant was murdered by a police officer in Oakland, sparking a series of riots in which I was involved in, and giving rise to a major transformation of the political situation in Oakland and in CA. Not long thereafter Trayvon Martin brought to the national stage a very similar debate and discussion. And so you do see people gradually realizing that the idea of post-racial is a sick brutal joke and moving out of the comfort zone of the Obama presidency to enter into a greater willingness to resist. I think that is a huge step in historical terms, and despite everything it was important for Obama to be elected because it was very important for people to come to this realization that he was not going to save us. Now that we’ve passed through this and we have a black president who is willing to turn a blind eye to this kind of racialized violence, to make such ridiculous statements about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, to continue to fund the Israeli government when it continues to bombard Gaza, and now that we have a potential candidate in Hillary Clinton who is willing to do much worse, then it gets much easier for people to come to a clear conception of the reality of the situation and to act accordingly.
One other historical precedence to ask about is that of the Occupy movement and the national connections that it established, which we see quickly emerging between Ferguson and other cities in the U.S. Can we think about Occupy as a key moment that activated the level of collective resistance we see today?
The answer as with the answer to any question about Occupy is yes and no. Yes, because Occupy is an important touchstone for recent political phenomena in the U.S. it certainly influenced a whole generation of radicals and militants nationwide, and it has galvanized the willingness to act and it has forged and reinforced certain modes of action like assemblies, popular democracy, street protests. No, in the sense that we need to understand Occupy itself as part of a historical trajectory; in the Bay Area, Occupy had its radical, militant nature in large part because of the organizing around Oscar Grant’s death in 2009. That organizing provided an understanding of the reality of police and a willingness to engage in street action and recognition that that action could bring very real transformation and benefits. These were all lessons that were brought into Occupy. And even beyond that local reality, if we’re talking about Occupy on a global scale then we’re talking about the Arab-North African Spring, we’re talking about theindignados in Spain, the waves of rebellions across the world and that have become a defining element of the last ten or twenty years. And so Occupy itself is part of this broader trajectory that allowed it to press forward in certain ways and that has drawn from existing understandings and connections. And part of the reason we can’t center on Occupy is that then we run the risk, again, of failing into civil libertarianism or falling into neglect of the historical realities of what policing means in the U.S. So you have, for instance, Anonymous, which for all the criticisms you can have of them has played a very important role in many political advances and in the events of Ferguson, and has done more for the events of Ferguson than all of the other liberals out there on Twitter. But even Anonymous is calling for limited reforms in regard to police oversight and militarization, because if you abstract away from the history of police and white supremacy, you can understand what’s going on in Ferguson as a question of the technical apparatus that the police carry as opposed to the structural function that the police play. And that’s where we need to keep both these things together. That relates in many ways to Occupy, which itself was torn and divided over this question of are we simply reforming US democracy in a way that brings us closer to the U.S. Constitution or are we radicalizing U.S. democracy in a way that understands the white supremacist history that Constitution is a part of?
A last question could be again about the black community in Ferguson, because we have seen some images of black males in the mainstream media that were talking against violence, but without producing a distinction between police violence. Instead everything became violence. And so our question is, do you think this could be a sign of a fracture in the black community, both in Ferguson and outside, that runs around class issues?
Yes, but understanding and bearing in mind that class is not manifesting strictly as an economic phenomenon, but as a political one, in the sense that to be middle class is very much a mindset and very much an identity regardless of one’s income. So I think you do have this fracture, and the phrase often used in the U.S. has to do with what is called respectability politics, in other words demonstrating that how well-behaved you can be, in the hopes that behaving well will actually transform social relations, when we know in reality that that’s not the case. And so the constant argument that is made is that if young black men would dress a little better and pull their pants up, if they would talk better, then maybe their situation would change. But we know from a structural reality that that’s not the case, that there are not jobs out there waiting for people who behave better and that the situation is a far more structural one. But you do see the same thing manifesting and you see it even in some of the ore radical spokespeople, you see it in Al Sharpton coming out and grabbing the family of Michael Brown and putting them behind him and trying to urge people to calm down. And you have a whole number of liberal commentators doing the same thing and emphasizing the question of violence of the protests, which is really an amazing an inverse perversion of the reality of protests that are protests against violence. It almost doesn’t need to be said, but the protestors in Ferguson haven’t killed a single human being, which cannot be said for the police in the streets. So if we’re talking about anything other than the violence of the police then we’re really already in enemy territory. But it even goes beyond that, because even those who emphasize the violence of the police, who say well, this is about the militarization of the police or about how the police responded in a brutal way they do so in a way that excises and cuts off the actual cause of the protest—namely, the violence against Michael Brown. And so that needs to be the starting point. People did not go to the streets to protest against the police response to protest, they went to the streets to protest against white supremacist murder of Michael Brown. That needs to be kept in focus and there will be a number of voices calling for a more non-violent response, but if we understand violence as violence against human beings, there really hasn’t been much if any violence in these protests. The violence has been in the violence against Michael Brown and the violence of the police against protesters and we shouldn’t g in for this rhetoric although it will be very dangerous. I think the protestors themselves in their response last night sent a very clear message about those self appointed mediators that they don’t speak for them, that they don’t speak for the people in the streets who, I argue, have a better understanding of social change then these liberal spokespeople who insist that the best way to change US society is to go through the established channels, to elect representatives, to elect a Democrat. I think that all of U.S. history and the arguably the history of the world shows that that is quite simply not true, that the Civil Rights movement succeeded as a result of the threat of the Black Power movement, that political institutions in Oakland when Oscar Grant was murdered only began to move when people rioted and rebelled. And the same exact thing is happening in Ferguson today. We can simply point to the fact that the county sheriff has been withdrawn from the streets to say that these protests have already begun to work.