There is an important lesson here
The coroner in the case of Eric Garner ruled that his death was a result of homicide
. That murder, effected with the use of a chokehold banned by the NYPD two decades ago, can be seen by everyone on video. The barbarous excuses about the officer being frightened for his life can't possibly be applied here. To put it plainly: a grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime.
And we can't just blame the prosecutors for stitching this up. Because: a Staten Island grand jury watched Daniel Pantaleo choke the life out of Eric Garner and refused to see a crime. This is not just police racism, it is not just state racism: this is popular
racism. This is about the people who refuse to 'see' a crime, even one that is recorded, if it is committed by a police officer against a black person
Obama talks about 'bodycams' as an answer to police misconduct. Allow me to re-emphasise: a grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime. Against this almighty ideological armoury, a 'bodycam' is about as much use as a lucky heather.
Notably, another Staten Island grand jury decided to indict Ramsey Orta
, who filmed the murder, accusing him of being in possession of a firearm. Orta argues, plausibly, that this is police revenge for his filming the murder. He might have added that the police stand to gain from criminalising him in an obvious way: the NYPD cop union is already blustering that crooks like Orta stand to benefit from the demonisation of good police, and so on. What is certain, though, is that the jury which decided to indict saw far less
evidence of his alleged crime than everyone saw of Pantaleo's murder of Garner.
To reiterate: a grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime; but they think the guy who made the film is guilty as sin. This, to further underline the point, is about popular racism. And it tells us something about the nature of race, and about the nature of the state.
Racism does not just come top-down, from the state. Race is nothing but a series of effects of social and political struggles. These struggles are given a particular materialisation in the institutions of the state, in the forms of political domination, in the ideologies of crime, and in the apparatuses which enforce the ideological category of crime.
The politics of race in the United States are primarily struggled over and settled through the criminal justice system. And that system depends not only on its articulation with other dominant institutions such as the mass media. It also depends upon popular participation for its grids of surveillance, its authoritative verdicts, its ideological legitimacy: snitches, witnesses, jury members, 'citizen journalists' and other bottom-feeding internet warriors, neighbourhood watch, pro-cop demonstrators, tea partiers, conservative activists, and so on.
The criminalisation of Michael Brown was essential to Darren Wilson walking free. One would be a holy fool to think that 'criminalisation' here just means fingering Brown as a prime suspect in the theft of cigars from a local store. Even if Wilson had known of this, it doesn't carry a death penalty, any more than does walking in the middle of the road, which is what Wilson in fact stopped Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson about. Several layers of criminalisation needed to be added to this to make murder acceptable.
And this was not just the work of Darren Wilson, through his interpretation of the black neighbourhood around Canfield Drive as ‘hostile’, and his fantasy of being grossly out-sized, menaced by a 'bulking up' black youth almost impervious to bullets - a genre of popular television and Hollywood myth-making. It was not just the work of Ferguson Police Department, in its strategic leaks and dissembling about what had taken place, from the early claims that Brown had broken Wilson's eye socket to the release of autopsy details about Brown smoking pot. It was not just the work of the mass media, from New York Times's "no angel" piece, in which rapping and growing up in a rough patch is adduced as evidence of sub-angelic status, to the obsessive pursuit in all outlets of "black-on-black crime"
The criminalisation of Michael Brown was also the work of a popular racist backlash. This was evident in the mulch of racist social media memes, and the sewer of right-wing blogs and 'news' sites, asserting that Brown had flashed 'gang signs' (an obsession in the US), that his father was a 'Blood', and that his family was violent. It was apparent in the pro-cop rallies with Klan members prominently involved, the polling data
showing that most whites did not blame Wilson for Brown's death.
All of these criminalising discourses build on a racist 'common sense' regarding what 'everyone knows' about black people, black communities, and black families: Their families are unstable, often fatherless. There is a "culture of poverty". Their communities are filled with crime and violence. They rap, and throw gang signs. Cops are courageous just to enter these neighbourhoods, and anyone who doesn't comply with an officer has it coming.
These, and similar ideological understandings, will determine how 'probable cause' is interpreted. They will determine a juror's sense of the probabilities, their view of the likely dispositions of the cop and the civilian, their sense of what testimony is dependable and what is not, what the best interpretation of physical evidence is. They will shape the perceptions of witnesses, as to whose behaviour is reasonable, as to who looks menacing, as to what a particular physical gesture might mean, as to what is staggering and what is charging.
The state can blitz a jury with expertise, images, footage, technical detail. They can overwhelm juries with seemingly 'hard facts'
. But without the racist 'common sense' that fills in the narrative gaps in the police yarn, and makes a spurious sort of sense of these 'hard facts', a prosecution stitch-up would have been hard to achieve. And in the case of Eric Garner, to reiterate: a grand jury watched a police officer choke a black man to death, and refused to see a crime.
There is an organic relationship between popular racist politics and the legal/police networks that enact racist terror. The 'filaments of racist ideology' protruding from the material apparatuses of the state have both efferent and afferent conduits.
Any movement against state racism is at one and the same time a struggle against popular racism.