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Social Justice

Are Peace and Violence Against Blacks Two Sides of the Same Coin?

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by police officer Brentley Vinson has mobilized a series of multi-day protests and riots in response to yet another instance of state-sanctioned violence and the premature death of black people.

According to reports, plainclothes officers in the same vicinity as Scott and his SUV were preparing to serve an arrest warrant against another individual when officer Brentley Vinson allegedly noticed marijuana and a gun in Scott’s possession. On the one hand, Scott’s death is due to his non-compliance and lawlessness. His death is the logical consequence of his own ill-fated actions, possible drug and weapon possession, and nothing else. On the other hand, (and situated within a context of white supremacy and racial capitalism), Scott, a disabled black man, allegedly in possession of marijuana and a weapon was killed without reason by law enforcement officers. In theory, the former analysis concludes that Scott’s death, albeit unfortunate, followed standard procedure and good police practice, while the latter takes the position that Scott’s death, while painful and provocative, is perfectly unexceptional.

But do either of these summations account for the necropolitics of anti-blackness? Can Scott’s death (and the death of countless other black people) possibly call attention to the violence inherent to the mantra of policing: “to keep the peace”? If peace is the antidote to black antagonism, then why, as black activists have so astutely pointed out, was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the embodiment of peaceful protest, assassinated? Why is peace, which cannot be guaranteed, so easily offered by black activists in return for their lives? Put succinctly, are peace and violence two sides of the same coin?

Peace trafficking and anti-blackness
The contradiction between peace and protest is most apparent when a grievance on behalf of black people is expressed. Whatever the grievance might be and whatever “safe space” it might be expressed in, it is already categorized as, in the words of Morgan Bassichis and Dean Spade, redundant (#AllLivesMatter) and oxymoronic (or impossible). In their essay, “Queer politics and anti-blackness” (2014), Bassichis and Spade connect the critical work of Jared Sexton, Frank B. Wilderson III, and Saidiya Hartman specifically to the neoliberal ascendency of non-black LGBT political organizing. The two authors point out how rights-based legislation such as the 13th amendment, to which I’ll also add Brown v. Board of Education (1954), The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, foster a false sense of completion to calls for justice for black people. What more could you want? Simultaneously, these interventions mark the possibility and beginning for establishing (more) protections for “society’s junior partners”, to borrow from Frank Wilderson III (same-sex marriage marriage and adoption, the white woman’s wage gap, etc.). For these reasons, the grievances of black people are unable to fully be comprehended because various legislative and judicial bodies, spearheaded by the Left and Right, have already ruled the task of redressing “slavery’s afterlife”, to quote Saidiya Hartman, complete. To the point, claims to rights, peace and justice are invariably anti-black and reproduce ideal neoliberal citizens invested in punitiveness and capital (full participation within an “anti-black civil society”) rather than BIQTPOC (black, indigenous, queer, trans, people of color) liberation.

The main objective of policing, “to keep the peace,” reveals to be radically impossible when taking the fate of black people into consideration. To maintain peace in civil society means to uphold racial hegemony—namely black subjectivities—white supremacy and racial capitalism. This is done by regurgitating proverbs of peace that are intimately linked to whiteness, while simultaneously criticizing disruptive action by blacks as ethically and strategically inferior forms of protest. I’m referring to that person who says, “There’s a right and wrong way to protest” or, “Perhaps if you weren’t so rude to police, we could get somewhere,” or my personal favorite, “I would have listened to you if you didn’t block traffic for two hours.” In short, each of these statements deploy peace as a weapon to critique black antagonisms in a way that is undeniably anti-black.

Let’s return to Scott, the #CharlotteUprising, and the question at hand to better understand how peace discourse is used to stifle or completely disregard black antagonisms. It’s no accident that the protests and riots in Charlotte have grown to such a critical mass just days after the launch of the September 9, 2016 prison strike. At its heart, this strike, which is being named a National Day of Solidarity to End Prison Slavery, is a labor strike. Its date marks the 45th anniversary of the uprisings at Attica Correctional Facility in 1971 and the 277th anniversary of the Stono Slave Rebellion in 1739. On a related note, protests in Charlotte stem from economic and social upheaval following the passing of “An Act to Provide for Single-Sex Multiple Occupancy Bathroom and Changing Facilities in Schools and Public Agencies and to Create Statewide Consistency in Regulation of Employment and Public Accommodations,” colloquially referred to as House Bill 2 (HB 2). The #CharlotteUprising is also taking place within a contentious election year in the U.S. and more specifically in the state of North Carolina as incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory is being challenged by attorney general, Roy Cooper. This context makes Scott’s death at the hands of police just a tipping point in a long line of tensions within an anti-black police state.

Prison abolition movements working against the necropolitical management of human-animal bodies deemed surplus or fungible are anything but novel. These rebellions make it apparent that we are experiencing iterations of black antagonism rather than isolated moments that can otherwise be remedied by peace, judiciousness, or even community organizing. Therefore, we can glean from this that all attempts to seek redress from anti-blackness through peace trafficking—levying or exchanging peace for justice—open the door to stricter forms of punishment and newer methods of facilitating black social death. Thus, the only option is to foreclose on calls for peace and turn up the volume on demanding the abolition of and liberation from all forms of servitude and imprisonment.

“No Justice, No Peace”
Finally, what does it mean, then, for peace politics and its discourses to come to terms with its anti-blackness? How might black liberation be tied to peace and violence, resistance and vulnerability, and complete and utter disorder? How might we put our heads together and rethink our mantra “no justice, no peace, no racist police” as not only irrelevant to black liberation but also a hindrance? Let it be said there is no justice that is unhinged from the punitive institutions that we seek to abolish, that cops are racist and blacks cannot exchange or offer peace in an anti-black civil society. So what then? What might we cry out so that we aren’t silent as we are killed? It is time that we cultivate a new inventory of chants and demands? One that can advocate for immediate remedies such as providing food, shelter, healthcare and education to those who are most in need, while also critiquing neoliberalism and racial capitalism. One, too, that can articulate our demands for abolition, self-determination, and liberation, once and for all.

By Ishmael Bishop

Ishmael Bishop is a queer, black writer from Wilson, NC. He is a recent alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill and is constantly thinking about what he's doing with his hands. He has written for a number of publications such as Counterpunch and his college newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. You can read more of his work at ishmaelbishop.net.