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)