by Henry A. Giroux
If you want a picture of the future imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever. — George Orwell
The larger reasons behind Eric Garner’s execution seem to be missed by most commentators. The issue is not simply police misconduct, or racist acts of police brutality, however deadly, but the growing use of systemic terror of the sort we associate with Hannah Arendt’s notion of totalitarianism that needs to be explored.
When fear and terror become the organizing principles of a society in which the tyranny of the state has been replaced by the despotism of an unaccountable market, violence becomes the only valid form of control. The system has not failed. As Jeffrey St. Clair has pointed out, it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, which is to punish those it considers dangerous or disposable – which increasingly includes more and more individuals and groups. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that, “If lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination.”
In an age when the delete button and an utterly commodified and privatized culture erase all vestiges of memory and commitment, it is easy for a society to remove itself from those sordid memories that reveal the systemic injustices that belie the presence of state violence and terrorism. Not only do the dangerous memories of bodies being lynched, beaten, tortured and murdered disappear in the fog of celebrity culture and the 24/7 entertainment/news cycle, but the historical flashpoints that once revealed the horrors of unaccountable power and acts of systemic barbarism are both disconnected from any broader understanding of domination and vanish into a past that no longer has any connection to the present.
The murder of Emmett Till, the killing of the four young black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the killing by four officers of Amadou Diallo, and the recent killings of countless young black children and men and women, coupled with the ongoing and egregious incarceration of black men in this country are not isolated expressions of marginalized failures of a system. They are the system, a system of authoritarianism that has intensified without apology.
Rather than being viewed or forgotten as isolated, but unfortunate expressions of extremism, these incidents are part of a growing systemic pattern of violence and terror that has unapologetically emerged at a time when the politics and logic of disposability, terror and expulsion has been normalized in US society and violence has become the default position for solving all social problems, especially as they pertain to poor minorities of class and color. If police brutality is one highly visible expression of the politics of disposability, mass incarceration is its invisible underside. How else to explain that “the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did [and that in] America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.” Or that 77 percent of all inmates out of a population of 2.3 million are people of color.
When ethics and any vestige of social responsibility and the public good are trampled beneath the hooves of the finance state, there is no space for democratic values or justice. We live in an age of disposability – an historical period of increasing barbarism ruled by financial monsters, who offer no political concessions and are driven by a death-drive.
Under assault are those individuals and populations considered excess such as poor youth of color and immigrants but also those public spheres such as public and higher education that offer a space for critical ideas, thoughtfulness, informed exchange and the development of modes of democratic solidarity. Democratic values, commitments, integrity and struggles are under siege in the age of neoliberal misery and disposability. The aim of the terrorist state, as Arendt argues, is not only to instill fear, but to destroy the very capacity for convictions. Under such conditions, power is not only unaccountable, but it is free from any sense of moral and political conviction. Hence, the rise of the punishing state as a way to govern all of social life. In this context, life becomes disposable for most, but especially for poor minorities of class and color.
I think bell hooks is right when she states that “the point of lynching historically was not to kill individuals but to let everybody know: ‘This could happen to you.'” This is how a terrorist state controls people. It individualizes fear and insecurity and undercuts the formation of collective struggle. Fear of punishment, of being killed, tortured, or reduced to the mere level of survival has become the government’s weapon of choice. The terrorist state manufactures ignorance and relies on induced isolation and privatization to depoliticize the population. Beliefs are reduced to the realm of the private allowing the public realm to sink into the dark night of barbarism, terror and lawlessness. Without the ability to translate private troubles into public issues, Americans face a crisis of individual and collective agency as well as a historical crisis.
As an endless expression of brutality and the ongoing elimination of any vestige of equality and democratic values, the killing of innocent black children and adults by the police makes clear that Americans now inhabit a state of absolute lawlessness and extreme violence, one that both fills the Hollywood screens with prurient entertainment and a culture of cruelty and, unfortunately, provides testimony to the ravaging violence that marks everyday life as well.
Of course, this is not simply a domestic issue or one limited to the United States. As Arif Dirlik points out, “Life in general is being devalued for entire sections of populations across the globe. Let’s not forget the callousness with which people are being murdered by drones, US troops, Israel, Han Chinese (Tibetans, Uighurs). The assassination of blacks by the police across the US gives the impression of a vulnerable population being used as guinea pigs, to warn the rest of what to expect if we get out of line.” Totalitarianism is on the rise across the globe just as a growing number of populations that are vulnerable are becoming more disposable due to modes of governance wedded to militarism, unchecked market forces, corporate sovereignty and updated forms of disorder.
Calls for minor reforms such as retraining the police, hiring more people of color, equipping police with body cameras or making the grand jury system more transparent will not change a political and social system that has lost its connections to the ideals, values and promises of a democracy. Just as calls for punishing the Wall Street crooks who caused the financial crisis will not reform the system that produced the financial debacle. In fact, the pleas for reform are often made by apologists for the punishing state in the aftermath of highly publicized examples of police brutality, botched executions, the shootings of unarmed black teenagers and the numerous reports of torture, solitary confinement and the ongoing criminalization of social problems.
For example, President Obama responded to the police violence and national uprisings by chastising blacks for looting and rioting. This is not merely another blame-the-victim narrative; it is an act of moral duplicity coming from a president that makes George W. Bush look liberal when it comes to violating civil liberties and punishing whistleblowers while expanding the indiscriminate killing of civilians through the use of drone warfare. In addition, there is Eric Holder who refused to prosecute Wall Street criminals and yet assures the US public that the government will conduct independent investigations in the interests of the powerless. Credibility is more than stretched in this instance.
It gets worse. New York City police chief, Bill Bratton, vows to retrain 22,000 police officers but evades questions about the police force using chokeholds on innocent victims. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appearing on Fox News Sunday suggests that some police reforms may be necessary and then gets to the heart of the matter by invoking the argument that blacks inhabit a culture of criminality. His comments are worth repeating: “But I think just as much, if not more, responsibility is on the black community to reduce the reason why the police officers are assigned in such large numbers to the black community. It’s because blacks commit murder eight times more per capita than any other group in our society.” As if this argument justifies the beatings, shootings and killing of innocent individuals at the hands of the police.
These calls for reform are not only disingenuous coming from people entrenched in supporting the punishing state and the interests its supports, but also because they are invoked to hide the real causes of misery and violence in the United States which come from a society immersed in racism, economic inequality, poverty, the redistribution of wealth away from the public sector, the ongoing destruction of the welfare state and a political system now entirely controlled by financial elites. Chase Madar is right in arguing that lawlessness is on the side of the police and the law has become a license for them to kill with impunity, and as such the question of police brutality has to be addressed far beyond the discourse of liberal reforms. He writes:
Police demilitarization, the decriminalization of working-class people, new policing models: these are all projects that could work in Ferguson and thousands of other American cities. Although none of these large-scale ideas is explicitly race-conscious, they would most likely tighten the severe racial disparities in policing violence that exist all over the country, more so than pouring more money into racial sensitivity training for cops. These big-picture reforms are fundamentally political solutions that will require long-term effort, coalition politics that spans race, ethnicity and political affiliation – a challenge, but also a necessity. As police and prosecutors assume more and more power in the United States – regulating immigration (formerly a matter of administrative law), meting out school discipline, and other spheres of everyday life where criminal law was almost unknown even a generation ago – getting law enforcement on a tight leash is a national imperative. In the meantime, the constant stream of news reports of unarmed, mostly black and Latino civilians killed by police demands bigger, bolder approaches. They are the only available paths to getting the police under control.
What drives the increasing brutalization and killing of innocent people in the United States is a form of state terrorism free of social responsibility, guilt and morality. This is a form of state violence fed by gun culture, the criminalization of poverty, the militarization of the culture of low-income and poor people of color, and the misery spurned by neoliberal, slash-and-burn policies aimed mainly at the poor and the welfare state. The face of terrorism can be captured in images of the police spraying tear gas into the crowds of peaceful protesters in New York City. It can be seen in reports of the police choking students, firing hundreds of rounds of bullets into the cars of civilians, beating a defenseless mentally-ill woman, and in the ongoing comments of right-wing fundamentalists who instill moral panic over the presence of immigrants, protest movements and any other form of resistance to the authoritarian state.
How else to explain the comments made on national television news by Pat Lynch, the head of the New York City police union, who stated that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo deserved to be acquitted by the grand jury in the death of Eric Garner because Garner was able to utter the words “I can’t breathe,” which allegedly indicated there was no chokehold applied to his neck, in spite of what the video displayed or what the medical examiner concluded. Even Orwell could not make this up. Lynch overlooked not only the evidence provided by the video of Garner’s brutal killing and the verdict of the medical examiner but also the fact that Pantaleo has a history of racial misconduct in the police force.
But more importantly, the New York City police force has a long history of racist practices and violence extending from an aggressive policy of racial profiling to bullying people in the name of the broken windows policing theory, which is a synonym for harassing young black men. It gets worse as fatal police encounters with black men reach epidemic proportions. Necropolitics now drives the everyday existence of poor people of color. As David Theo Goldberg points out, how else to explain “the account Darren Wilson has given publicly about his sense of Michael Brown as a large, violent, probably armed young black man? Or the shooting with absolutely no warning of 12-year-old Tamir Rice for carrying a pellet gun in an otherwise empty snow-filled park . . . Or the luckily unsuccessful shooting at a black father by mistaking for a weapon the 6-year-old daughter he was rushing to save from a severe asthma attack?”
It doesn’t end here as the nightmare videos appear of a cop viciously beating a 50-year-old, mentally-ill black woman along a busy Los Angeles highway, and another report of a young black man being killed in a Walmart store for allegedly “brandishing” an air rifle which he had reportedly been holding and leaning on, as if it was a walking stick. In totalitarian regimes, the mass psychology of authoritarianism runs amok as such indiscriminate acts of state violence are followed by the language of demonization, racism, cruelty and mad utterances of hate. Black men are called dangerous criminals, thugs or drug addicts. This is a discourse of abusive certainty, unmoved by its ignorance and determined to legitimate massive extremes of inequality, material deprivation and human misery as it produces widening zones of violence and abandonment.
Under such circumstances, the language of reform has become the discourse of apologists. None of these alleged reformers situate the violence done to Garner within a wider context of state violence. For instance, Garner’s death is not analyzed in the context of the charge that the New York City police force is a corrupt and lawless institution, which raises questions about a society that produces such lawless institutions. No connection is made between how police are trained and regulated, and the evidence that the killing of a 12-year-old black child was committed by a cop deemed incompetent by his previous department. Only recently has the militarization of local police forces become national news, but the latter is largely unassociated with the rise of a permanent warfare state and the militarization of the entire society. Little is learned from the ongoing evidence that blacks are mostly terrified of the police who act like an occupying force in their neighborhoods, which are treated like war zones. What ties all of these events together is that all of these acts of violence, corruption and incompetence are not isolated practices but add up to the new face of domestic terrorism in a post 9/11 United States.
Lawlessness in the authoritarian state thrives on the purported existence of an alleged culture of criminality. The culture of criminality thesis has taken on a new register as the punishing state increases the range of social behaviors it now criminalizes. If somebody is poor, unable to pay their debts, violates a trivial rule in school, is homeless or viewed as the other, they are prime targets for the criminal justice system. As the police become more militarized and the culture of cruelty becomes more pervasive, the senseless harassment of young black men is followed by a spate of racist killings. Under such circumstances, the criminal justice system is not noted for its respect for justice but for how it has “become criminal in its lack of justice.” Unfortunately, there is a culture of criminality in the United States and it resides in the mega-banks, the ultra-rich hedge funds and other apparatuses of the finance state. But on this issue there is nothing but silence from alleged patriots.
Calls for such reforms do not challenge the totalitarian politics and financial forces that rule US society. They simply give the system a veil of legitimacy suggesting it can be fixed. It can’t be fixed. This is not to suggest that it is not better for cops to wear cameras than carry military-grade weapons or that there is no point in creating new policing models. But these are short-term solutions and do not address the larger structural violence and racism built into the neoliberal financial state. It is a death-dealing system ruled by political and moral zombies, and it has to be transformed through the ongoing, nonviolent mobilization and development of social movements that can imagine a democracy that is real, substantive and radical in its calls for justice, equality and freedom. The dark possibilities of our times are everywhere.
The killing of Eric Garner is a flashpoint that has mobilized people all over the country. The demonstrations must continue full force and as a first step criminal charges must be brought against rogue cops and lawless police departments that believe that they can engage in racist repression and brutalize black neighborhoods by treating them as war zones. The racist ideologies, institutions and language of the new authoritarianism are part of a systemic project of disposability, harassment and expulsion and provide the formative culture necessary to treat blacks, as Robin D.G. Kelley points out, “like enemy combatants,” which constitutes the first step toward brutalizing and in some cases killing young black men with impunity. But then the hard work begins of creating political formations at every level of government that will dismantle this barbarous system run by financial looters and backed up by rogue paramilitary forces. Let’s hope the killing of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner provides the beginning of a political and social movement to fight what has become a dark and gruesome political state of governance in the United States.
3. Nicholas Kristof, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5,” The New York Times (November 29, 2014). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-when-whites-just-dont-get-it-part-5.html. Two important books on racism and mass incarceration are Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012) and Maya Schenwar, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better (Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014).
5. Margaret Talbot, “Why Cameras on Police Officers Won’t Save Us,” The New Yorker (December 4, 2014). Online: http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/camera-police-officers-wont-save-us
6. Lauren C. Regan, “The Secret Darkness of Grand Juries,” CounterPunch (November 28-30, 2014). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/11/28/the-secret-darkness-of-grand-juries/print
7. Jelani Cobb, “No Such Thing as Racial Profiling,” The New Yorker (December 4, 2014). Online:
9. Elijah Anderson, “What caused the Ferguson riot exists in so many other cities too,” The Washington Post (December 3, 2014). Online:
10. Eba Hamid and Benjamin Mueller, “Fatal Police Encounters in New York City,” The New York Times (December 3, 2014). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/nyregion/fatal-police-encounters-in-new-york-city.html?_r=0
11. David Theo Goldberg, “Revelations of ‘Postracial’ Ferguson,” Truthout (December 3, 2014). Online:
12. Mychal Denzel Smith, “The System That Failed Eric Garner and Michael Brown Cannot Be Reformed,” The Nation (December 3, 2014).
13. John Feffer, “Racial Apartheid in America,” CounterPunch (December 4, 2014). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/04/racial-apartheid-in-america/
14. Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why We Won’t Wait,” CounterPunch, November 25, 2014
[Thank you Henry for this contribution and your continued support. This essay first appeared on Truthout.org as “State Terrorism and Racist Violence in the Age of Disposability: From Emmett Till to Eric Garner (expanded version).”]
The writer is the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. His web site is http://www.henryagiroux.com and his other site is MCSPI.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.