Fear and Fantasy in Ferguson

by Joseph Lowndes

There are many things that bear examining in the police killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath: the local police force, the media, the legal system. But action in each of these diverse institutional settings is tied together by one overwhelming phenomenon – white fear of black violence. Yet this fear has, since before the founding, played an important, even central role in an American political culture that has white supremacy at its core. We cannot get to any adequate understanding of the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death without this acknowledgement.

In a nation founded on ideals of freedom and equality on the one hand, and slavery and genocide on the other, white aggression toward people of color has always required powerful moral justification. At one level, this justification is only made possible insofar as those who are victims of state aggression can be made to seem the aggressors. More than that, these victims must be made into figures of annihilating destruction.

This transformation of people of color into fearsome specter is at the heart of what the late political theorist Michael Rogin called countersubversion – a political tradition in the United States that emerges repeatedly in racial conflict. As he put it, “The countersubversive needs monsters to give shape to his anxieties and to permit him to indulge his forbidden desires. Demonization allows the countersubversive, in the name of battling the subversive, to imitate his enemy.”

We tend to think of anxiety and fear as personal emotional states. Yet intense, animating dread of black aggression describes not merely the psychological profile of the individual bigot or marginal white supremacist group.   It is built into the cultural logic of law enforcement and legal norms, as well as shared social beliefs in white American society.

Consider the stark images from the early protests following the shooting: local police in Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor, and gas masks drawing automatic weapons on a lone black teen with hands raised. Or armored personnel carriers rolling through neighborhoods, mounted high-powered rifles with local residents in their sights. The fact that the US military sold this equipment, used in Afghanistan in Iraq, to local police forces across the nation only underscores the fear of loss of control over potentially dangerous local populations in an era when the imperatives of law enforcement are so closely tied to racial narratives of crime and disorder. It also links racial domination at home to empire-building abroad.

And there is Wilson’s own testimony to the grand jury. First, this police officer, who stands at six feet four inches, describes Brown (who was 6’ 4”) in superhuman dimensions. “And when I grabbed him,” Wilson claims “the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Wilson becomes an innocent child overpowered by a giant adult, instead of an armed adult who in fact killed a child.

Wilson then goes on to describe Brown’s “intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.” “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” Wilson goes on, “and the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” Brown has a face of a devil and is as unstoppable as a zombie.

The grand jury, made up of nine whites and three African Americans, reached their decision in an institutional context shaped by racial logic linking race, crime, violence and the authority of the police. Rarely do such bodies choose to indict the latter. All anyone knows for certain is that an unarmed Brown was slain by Wilson from 153 feet away. What should be noted here though is the language of demonization, of monstrosity in the testimony of Wilson. His account is not one merely of facts, but of powerful fantasy. “The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” said Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch. Indeed, Wilson’s successful testimony seems to have done just the opposite.

“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” went the cry from a white child upon seeing the black psychoanalyst and social theorist Frantz Fanon on a train. Fanon recounts this moment where his blackness is named as violence beyond his power to shape it. He knew that he was trapped in what he called a “historico-racial schema” woven by a white society “out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” In much the same way for Michael Brown in life for Wilson, and then in death for the grand jurors, frightening violence was already present in his blackness.

It is this monstrous black violence, already present before the fact – in the killing of Mike Brown, in the militarized forces on the streets of Ferguson, in Wilson’s grand jury testimony, in Missouri governor Jay Nixon’s declaration a statewide state of emergency more than a week before the Grand Jury gave its verdict, and finally in cable news lamentations not of black pain and sorrow, but of property destruction in the wake of the non-indictment.

The non-indictment of Wilson has resulted in an enormous wave of upheaval on the streets of Ferguson and now across the nation. This tumult should be celebrated, not feared. As the great republican thinker Niccolò Machiavelli said about the rioters of ancient Rome, its participants are guardians of liberty. Right now they provide the only appropriate response to the very real brutality of state violence.

Joseph Lowndes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon.
His research areas include race, populism, culture, and American political development. He is the author of From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism ( Yale University Press 2008)

Commemorating a Massacre: Queries for Political Scientists

by Nancy D. Wadsworth

As we approach another Thanksgiving, people interested in politics and history in the American West may be thinking about November 29th, a date that lives in infamy in the annals of U.S. governance, military history, and the long struggle of Native people in the face of an expansionist settler state. On that cold day 150 years ago, federalized regiments led by Colonel John Chivington slaughtered more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, in an event that came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

This massacre and the understudied role of a political official named Dr. John Evans in the events preceding it have been the subjects of recent reports by Northwestern University and the University of Denver (DU). (Evans founded both institutions.) I chaired the interdisciplinary committee that produced DU’s report and a set of recommendations based on it. As a result of that eighteen-month crash-course in settler-colonial and Native American history, in which we worked with both descendants and historians of the massacre, I have been contemplating why this and related subjects are so understudied in my home discipline of political science.

In more fully describing the massacre, I’ll offer some queries to contemplate.

In late-September 1864, the most prominent peace chiefs in the eastern plains region of Colorado had come to Camp Weld in Denver to council with John Evans, the territorial governor and ex officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The chiefs were responding to Evans’s call for “peaceful Indians”—those not fighting the waves of settlers increasingly trespassing Native people’s legal land rights in the rush for gold—to report to territorial authorities and surrender resistance. In an August proclamation Evans had endorsed all citizens to kill and effectively pillage from “hostile Indians,” though he gave no criteria for distinguishing “hostiles” from “friendlies.” But at the Camp Weld council, Evans told the peace chiefs he could not negotiate, as the territory’s affairs were now in the hands of the military. (This was a curious claim, given Evans’s mandate as superintendent to negotiate peace treaties with precisely these tribes, and the fact that Evans himself had sought the imposition of martial law.) He directed the Indians report to Ft. Lyon, a military outpost in southeastern Colorado, suggesting their people would be safe there until military officials could broker a treaty. About 750 individuals eventually reported to the fort and were sent to camp at a bend in Sand Creek about 30 miles away, where they could hunt for provisions to sustain them.

Query #1: How do political scientists understand the ménage a trois of U.S. political, military, and legal power as it was imposed on the vast milieu of Native societies the United States confronted in the nineteenth century period of expansionist institution-building? Why do we have strong studies in American Political Development about institution building and the Civil War, but so little on the “Indian Wars” and other removal strategies upon which the federal government depended for its expansionist mission? Kevin Bruyneel and Paul Frymer have done excellent work on aspects of this; where are the rest?

Two months after the September meeting, the government that had offered the tribes protection mowed them down without mercy. Most of the murdered were women, children, and the elderly, but also at least seventeen prominent peace chiefs. (Query #2: Why has political science not seen fit to study the political organization, strategies, and leadership of Indian nations in the post-revolutionary period—or at all? Is there a reason we leave these studies to historians, anthropologists, or comparativists working in non-U.S. contexts?) The first of the chiefs shot down was the seventy-five-year-old White Antelope, a respected leader who had received a peace medal in a visit to Washington D.C. in 1851. Soldiers immediately set upon him in death, stripping him and cutting off parts of his body, which would be later paraded around Denver in frenzied celebrations. Countless others, including pregnant women, toddlers, and babies, underwent similar unspeakable atrocities.

Governor Evans was in the East Coast by the time it happened, but he had single-handedly lobbied for the 3rd Regiment of federalized, 100-day volunteers that Chivington used to attack the encampment, and which committed the vast majority of the atrocities. Evans had raised the unit explicitly to “kill Indians,” and he had made a series of decisions in late-1863 and 1864, which both university committees find escalated the prospects for war and left Cheyennes and Arapahos in an impossible situation, caught between an 1861 treaty that did not protect them and a settler society ready to kill them off if necessary.

Brutal and illegal massacres of Native people were not uncommon in the history of U.S. settler colonialism, but the Sand Creek Massacre was the Abu Ghraib scandal of its time. It was distinctive in several respects. Two military commanders, who had ordered their companies to stand down when they understood the situation, wrote their commanding officer, describing the massacre in excruciating detail. Two congressional committees and a military commission conducted investigations, each declaring the attack a massacre and condemning the decisions and actions of officials involved with it. Although no individual was ever criminally prosecuted (Chivington was protected by virtue of his military commission having expired), Evans was forced to resign as a result of recommendations from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War. Two years later, in The Treaty of Little Arkansas, the U.S. government repudiated the massacre and promised land and monetary reparations to survivors and descendants for the damage done. Consistent with the United States’ record on Indian treaties, those debts were never paid. Finally, this is the sole attack against Native people in our boundaries that the U.S. government recognizes as a massacre.

Queries 3-5: How did lax or non-existent systems of accountability enable a democratic state to execute genocidal policies in full view of the public? What can the nineteenth century teach us about the twenty-first in this respect? How do settler societies like ours cope with—or suppress—collective memory when it comes to Native people?

It’s worth remembering that political science as a codified discipline rose with the rest of the nineteenth century empiricist missions; our very epistemologies are tethered to a worldview that sees, counts, and values fairly narrowly defined concepts of “the political.” Part of the social science enterprise, early political science pursued agendas largely blind to or devaluing of human communities figured as outside the modern state. Even the older field of political theory has long depended on heuristic devices such as the “state of nature” that ignore the actual social structures and political arrangements of indigenous societies. Critiques of such practices by Will Kymlicka and others are fairly recent. It would seem that the politics of modern foundings, and the legal, institutional, and cultural power tools settler societies in particular have wielded in their service, should be major field areas in political science. So, final query: Why are these subjects so sparsely studied?

In their reports, both university committees agree that Evans abrogated his duties as Superintendent of Indian Affairs and made dangerous leadership decisions as governor that put the tribes in harm’s way. These report are not trials of individuals conducted in absentia. They are records of institutions trying to comprehend the role of their forefathers in the founding violence—and amnesia—that were standard tools in the arsenal of American progress. As the 150th anniversary draws year and the Arapaho and Cheyenne prepare for their annual Healing Run in remembrance, these studies should give political scientists much to ponder.

Nancy D. Wadsworth is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. She is the author of Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing, and co-editor, with Robin Dale Jacobson of Faith and Race in American Political Life. She recently wrote about teaching about settler colonialism and indigenous politics in political science in PS: Political Science & Politics.

NEW scholarship: “The next generation? A reexamination of religious influence on Mexican- American attitudes toward same-sex marriage.”


New scholarship from Neilan Chaturvedi published this month in the new WPSA journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, finds “that second and third-generation Mexican-Americans look more like  mainstream’  Americans than their immigrant predecessors” (600). In particular, Chaturvedi looks at attitudes among Mexican Americans toward same sex marriage.

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Chaturvedi considers the role of church attendance, devotion, and age on attitudes toward same sex marriage, and finds third generation Mexican Americans to be more accepting of same sex marriage. He discusses the implications of his findings; check out the full article here.

The Gendered Lens of Power: Valerie Jarrett and Her Critics


Lilly J. Goren

Valerie Jarrett has been the subject of quite a few column inches since the midterm elections. Much of the commentary is easily broken down into two mostly opposing camps: those who are calling for her ouster from the White House, or at least a demotion from the policy realm and the daily work of the West Wing; and those who are defending Jarrett from what they say are sexist and gender-based attacks. Both sides have some merit. Jarrett has a broad and loosely defined portfolio in the Obama White House and she also seems to have unfettered access to the president and first lady. At the same time, she is characterized not as “Obama’s brain” but as the “Obama whisperer” or “the Night Stalker.” The images that are run alongside the more critical articles don’t imply her power so much as suggest insidiousness.

The initial volley in this latest round came from Politico Magazine, where Carol Felsenthal published a lengthy assessment of the need to “Fire Valerie Jarrett” – as the article was titled. Felsenthal includes many of the long-standing critiques of Jarrett, going all the way back to the beginning of the Obama Administration in 2009. Donna Brazile and Jonathan Capehart both responded defending Jarrett, with criticisms as well, but noting that Jarrett was being more clearly targeted because of her gender. At The New Republic, Noam Scheiber published a long piece about Jarrett, calling her “The Obama Whisperer” accompanied by a stylized image of a Jarrett-like woman whispering into the president’s ear. Without even delving into the extensively sourced article, the image alone implies clandestine operations, conspiracies, and secrets.

Jarrett’s place in the West Wing is wide-ranging and therefore nebulous—thus making it easier to criticize her because her responsibilities are harder to distinguish and easier for those with clearer responsibilities to argue that she is more destructive than constructive. Her connection to the Obamas is long established and extensive, and in many ways, she contributed to Obama’s positioning for his presidential run. In this regard, her connection to the Obamas is much like Karl Rove’s relationship to George and Laura Bush. Rove was famously dubbed “Bush’s brain;” Jarrett has never been cast in a similar light, though she is hardly lacking intellect, training, or essential experience. In many ways, she has more substantive policy experience than Rove did before he started working for the Bushes, though Rove had more extensive campaign experience. Both Karen Hughes and Harriet Miers have occupied similar advisory positions in regard to President George W. Bush, and some of the same kinds of critiques came at Miers in particular – though again, her position in the White House was generally more clearly defined. Jarrett’s relationship to President Obama was not grounded, as in the case of Rove and Hughes, in contributing to campaign strategy. But if Rove was considered to be “Bush’s brain” in that he was a kind of extension of Bush himself and a reflection back of Bush, Jarrett is in a very similar position. So how come Jarrett has not been considered “Barack’s brain” in the same way? Being dubbed “the Night Stalker” is much more undermining, casting doubts on Jarrett’s integrity.

Many of the criticisms directed at Jarrett over the years are those heard in every administration, especially in regard to someone who has significant access to the president. And there are lots of folks (supporters of the President and detractors alike) who think that whatever Jarrett is doing or has done is wrong and that she needs to go. At the same time, when the second sentence of Felsenthal’s article is about pushing Jarrett to the East Wing so she can “hang out with Michelle Obama and the White House social secretary” all the critiques that follow will be seen through a gendered lens—in a kind of reversal of Lady Macbeth’s famous line wanting to be “unsexed,” Jarrett has been “gendered”—perhaps not overtly in terms of her actions, but the implication is that the place where she can “do the least damage” is hanging out with the social secretary or becoming a librarian (of Obama’s Presidential Library). Brazile and Capehart push back against this line of criticism, though not by taking on the images or the implications. Furthermore, neither defense gets at the more insidious nature of the critique, namely that Jarrett operates covertly, clandestinely, and perhaps inappropriately. Jarrett’s critics have long cast her as a kind of Iago; she is portrayed as scary and vengeful even as she quietly whispers in the ear of the president. The externally constructed impression of Jarrett, subtly portrayed but starkly at odds with the consumed image of Karl Rove, is that she embodies both insidious and gendered power and the anxiety thereof. This, again, reinforces the problematic that women face in positions of power—how women exercise power at the very highest levels remains controversial and suspect, even if they are deserving of criticism, it comes through a gendered lens.