‘We’re Trying to Destroy the World’:
Anti-Blackness and Police Violence After Ferguson
Frank B. Wilderson, III
A radio interview with radio hosts Jared Ball, Todd Steven Burroughs and Dr. Hate, taped in October of 2014 in the midst of the ongoing anti-police struggles taking place in Ferguson, MO. Transcribed by Ill Will Editions, November 2014, with minor edits for length and readability.
JB – We want to start with a question that was posed to you during a Q & A at which we were present. Someone asked you a question about police brutality. You said, ‘I’m not against police brutality, I’m against the police’. Can we start there, and can you reflect on the most recent goings-on in Ferguson, MO and the continued police violence against Black folks in the US and around the world?
FW: That was at Haile Gerima’s bookstore in DC, and it was an all-Black audience, so I didn’t have my guard up. I might have said it differently in a classroom, who knows. What I meant there was, well it was a bit tongue in cheek, but of course I hate police brutality. I haven’t been brutalized in the past ten years, but when I was brutalized I did hate that. I hate the harassment However, I feel that what my critical work is trying to contribute is to say that Black people in the US and worldwide are the only people — and I say this categorically — for whom it is not productive to speak in terms of ‘police brutality’. I know that we have to, because we’re forced to speak in these terms, and there is a way in which all Black speech is always coerced speech, in that you’re always in what Saidiya Hartman would call a context of slavery: anything that you say, you always have to think, ‘what are the consequences of me speaking my mind going to be?’ The world — and this goes for Democracy Now, it goes for our post-colonial comrades, etc. — is not ready to think about the way in which policing affects Black people. And so what we have to do is ratchet-down the scale of abstraction, so that we don’t present the world with the totality of our relation to the police, which is that we are policed all the time, and everywhere. We have to give the world some kind of discourse, some kind of analysis in bite-size pieces that they are ready to accept, so that they can have some kind of empathy for us, some kind of political or legal adjudication. That is why police brutality becomes the focal point of the problem.
Police brutality has never identified our problem. Our problem is one of complete captivity from birth to death, and coercion as the starting point of our interaction with the State and with ordinary white citizens (and with ordinary Latino, Mexican, Asian citizens, Native Americans). And so when I was in that room and I said ‘I don’t hate police brutality, I hate the police’, I think most of the people in that room immediately understood what I was saying, but also understood the problems with going outside and saying that.
Here’s one little example of how this conundrum or paradox affects the way we can speak to White people and our so-called ‘allies of color’. In Tulia, TX, in 1999, 45 Black people and about two Latinos were arrested in a one-night drug bust. In other words, roughly 10 percent of the Black population were arrested in one night. All of them were convicted. There is a film about this that people can find online. What’s interesting to me is not the celebratory political and emancipatory nature of the film, which ends by saying, ‘at the end of the day we were able to get most of the convictions overturned, because the undercover agent did not have evidence’. There was one undercover agent who indicted 45 Black people and two Latinos. But he did not come to court with cocaine. He came to court with this word. And what was interesting to me about that was that when jurors were interviewed about that, and people said to them, ‘So you convicted these kids, some to 200 or 300 years, on no evidence, but on the word of one police officer. Would you want that to happen to your child?’, one of the jurors said—without any sense of irony—‘if it was my child, we’d need evidence’. So the problem then is not where the film situates the problem, or where the media situates it, i.e. in the rogue actions of the police. The problem is in the libidinal economy, which is to say in the collective unconscious of everybody else. And if we were to actually understand that better, we’d understand that Blackness is always-already criminalized in the collective unconscious. The only problem for white supremacy and anti-Blackness when it’s happening to Black people in Mexico for example, is one of logistics, of mechanics, which is to say, ‘how can we make the criminalization stick?’ It’s not a question of something wrong taking place, that these Black people are suffer or exist under police brutality. Policing—policing Blackness—is what keeps everyone else sane. And if we can start to see the policing and the mutilation and the aggressivity towards Blackness not as a form of discrimination, but as being a form of psychic health and well-being for the rest of the world, then we can begin to reformulate the problem and begin to take a much more iconoclastic response to it.
JB – This idea that there is a sort of necessity, for the quality of life—i.e. that the existence of an anti-Black perspective is life for those who are involved in the mutilating, torturing, terrorizing Black people…what’s preventing Black people from understanding this? Some folks, such as Fanon, Frances Cress Welsing, etc., have attempted to grasp the psychic relation between the terrorizer and the terrorized, but most folks won’t go so far as to say that there is a health and even a sense of pleasure in that libidinal economy for Whites to enact an anti-Black perspective. What’s preventing folks from understanding that?
Although my work is fine, I would really encourage listeners to read two Black authors, Hortense Spillers and Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, in particular for those moments where they are at a loss to address what they have come up against. What we tend to do — and I’m not criticizing this, we have to help Black people make it through the day, which is the job of Black psychologists and Black psychoanalysts — but we also need people like me, who point to the failures of what Fanon called the “healthy infrastructure of the psyche”. And then I’d also suggest moving to the more uncompromising literature of David Marriot and Jared Sexton, who will deal with psychoanalysis but will not offer any cure.
Here’s the deal: in a nutshell, every other group lives in a context of violence which has what I would call a sort of psychological grounding wire, which means that they can write a sentence about why they are experiencing that violence. Native Americans can write a sentence that says ‘I’m experiencing violence because this is an ongoing tactic within a strategy of colonization’. White feminists can say the same, that ‘this is an ongoing tactic within a strategy of patriarchy’. For a Black person to try and emulate that kind of interpretive lens, the problem becomes a lot bigger. For us this is the ongoing tactic of a strategy for human renewal. The violence against us becomes a tactic within a strategy to secure Humanity’s place. It’s not a tactic in an ongoing strategy to take our land away, or to take our rights away. We never had any rights.
The other thing is that our psyche does not obey the objective laws of the structure. The simple way of putting that would be to say that we exist in an external superviolence, and we exist in an internal soup which has self-hatred as one of its main components. One of the things that Marriot and Fanon each say is that, generically speaking, the structure by which human beings are recognized by other human beings and incorporated into a community of human beings, is anti-slave. And slaveness is something that has consumed Blackness and Africanness, making it impossible to divide slavery from Blackness. Even if I say to myself, “I am not a Slave”, we don’t make our own way in the world. So we know every day, before walking out of the house—and I think the American Black knows it quicker, like say at age 3, the Caribbean and African Black might know it a little bit later on in life, like Fanon says, ‘I was 18 when I learned it’—that we cannot enter into a structure of recognition as a being, an incorporation into a community of beings, without recognition and incorporation being completely destroyed. We know that we are the antithesis of recognition and incorporation. And sometimes we build to a point that we can’t even call it political because it’s bigger than politics, a point of mobilization and organization and theorization that is in some way informed by this, and we just set it off, and I think that Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and the Black Liberation Army are episodes of that. But the response to these moments, where we recognize that we cannot be recognized and we move on that, the response is so overwhelmingly violent that it doesn’t seek to end the conflict — say in Algeria or Vietnam — it seeks to crush us to the point that nobody ever gets that idea in their head again.
Normally people are not radical, normally people are not moving against the system: normally people are just trying to live, to have a bit of romance and to feed their kids. And what people want is to be recognized, to be incorporated. And when we understand that recognition and incorporation are generically anti-Black, then we don’t typically pick up the gun and move against the system, we typically try to find ways to be recognized, to be incorporated, even though that’s impossible. And I think that our language is symptomatic of that when we say that ‘I don’t like police brutality’. Because, here we are saying to the world, to our so-called ‘people of color allies’ and to the white progressives, ‘we’re not going to bring all the Black problems down on you today. If you could just help us with this little thing, I won’t tell you about the whole deal that is going on with us.’
TB: If we agree with your thesis, then what is the framework of resistance? How do we resist, either physically or psychologically?
Your question makes me admit something. Whenever a Black person comes to speak to other Black people, it’s incumbent upon the Black people who are listening to decide how useful this person is to me in what they are saying, and what aspects of my problem can what this person’s saying address. I think more specifically, that professors are by and large categorically disqualified or unqualified to make pronouncements on resistance. I think that when Fanon talks about hallucinatory whitening, I think that whether you’re talking like me, or like an afro-centrist, or an integrationist, that this is so much a part of what it means to be a professor. I feel like cussing people out all the time. But if I do that, and I violate University of California’s civility laws, tenure or not I’m out the door, right? And that tempers my speech. So I think that what I have to offer is not a way out. What I have to offer is an analysis of the problem. And I don’t trust me as much as I trust Black people on the ground. So having said that, that’s one part of my answer.
The other part is that, as Saidiya Hartman has said, Black liberation presents us with the prospect of a kind of liberation that is so totalizing (i.e. that it is what Fanon says on page 100, quoting Aimé Césaire: ‘the end of the world’), that it can’t be ratcheted down and put into political language. If I’m right that the problem that Black people are in is not colonial exploitation and not racism but social death — which is not to say that Black people don’t experience racism and that Black poor people are not exploited, but that once all that’s over, we’re still going to be socially dead — then I think that we actually don’t have a political framework to deal with that, certainly not in Marxism, Feminism, and post-Colonialism. I’m writing about this now . The beautiful actions of the BLA are bigger than the political discourse of Marxist-Leninism or New Afrikan discourse through which they tried to make sense of that. But as has been pointed out elsewhere, one of the problems that the BLA always had was that they were not only coerced by the police but were at the whims of white radical allies.
When Fanon says that the Black person is a ‘stimulus to anxiety’, and that this is very different from the Jew, since the latter is a stimulus to anxiety because of x, y or z: in the fantasy world of anti-Semitism, he or she is going to do well on all the exams, and there won’t be any space for my kid in the French university; or they’re going to take over the world economic system, etc. All that stuff, where you can put language to their anxiety, makes the Jew, the Native American, the post-colonial subject, a much more malleable phobic object than the Black. The Black is a phobic object because he or she presents me with a problem that is beyond language, that leaves me with no way to redress what this person represents. This person is the antithesis of Humanity. And there are moments in which we have seized that esprit de corps even if we are not able to speak to each other in that stark of terms, and we move. I mentioned a couple a few minutes ago. I think that we need to keep with those moments. I also think we need, in our political organizing, to be aware of how impoverished our articulated agenda is in comparison with the suffering that we actually experience.
Dr. Hate: Frank, nobody wants to respond to this [laughter]. Because I think, literally what you just said, that we are unable to develop the articulation to speak to our suffering, I can’t help but think that if we were to recognize this suffering, it wouldn’t be spoken through thoughts or words, but might find a completely different type of expression. It might look like the body collapsing in on itself. So it might be expressing itself through our own diseases, since it is a question of health. It might express itself through unhealthy adaptations to terrorism and oppression. And it might be a matter of recognizing that those of us who have been courageous enough to respond to it are those that took action to respond to it, the ones that you named, the Harriet Tubmans and the BLA, the people along that line. But it’s also recognizing that it can’t get any worse, and so I have to fight. And that’s kind of the perspective you took, when you saw people fighting in South Africa, and said ‘I need to fight, because that’s the only thing I can do that would make sense and make a contribution to the world’.
Yes, and I also want to say, since you are a Black psychologist, and my Father and Mother are as well, that I think that we need help on a daily basis. So if I emphasize a total end of the world, which is what I emphasize, I don’t want listeners to think, ‘Oh, well he thinks that what I’m doing is just peanuts or no good.’ What I think that Black professors, psychologists and journalists can do is to provide a space for us to talk about the impossibility of Black life, and I think that is a revolutionary act and is highly significant.
I think two things are always happening. The Marxists — and I’m not against Marxism, I believe that capitalist exploitation dominates the world and I’m against it — but I think that all these progressive groups come with an orientation toward the problem that does two things: first, it crowds out what we have been talking about here; then, it polices the terrain of political discourse so that we can’t get a word in edgewise about how there is no solution that can be thought of to Black suffering. They say: ‘If you can’t think of a solution then don’t talk about it.’ And if we can provide for ourselves what Hortense Spillers calls an ‘intramural context’ to talk about how the problem today is the same as it was in 1855 even though the technologies have changed, then that is something, and it can move us towards the next big moment in which we are able to set it off.
Dr. Hate: This rings true, and Black folks know this, cause after the so-called Katrina episode, and the so-called Gulf Coast War of the US, we didn’t respond then, and it was the scariest thing to watch or not watch because we didn’t have a pulse then to respond to the totalitarian wholesale State and Federal repressive violence against Black people. So the Ferguson moment feels good, as the struggle has been protracted in terms of how long the marches and demonstrations usually go on, and it’s coming from a place in the States that we haven’t paid attention to since like the East St. Louis riot in 1917 or something.
Dr. Hate: And I know that the left loves to talk about Justice Taney and Dred Scott and all that, but I’m like ‘we have other mob violence that has occurred like 15 miles from Ferguson that we should be talking about. But the non-response is the piece that has been jacking me up, so I appreciate the idea that it’s a revolutionary idea just to create the space just to deal with this.
One of the things we need to deal with is the ways in which right reactionary white civil society and so-called progressive colored civil society really works to sever the Black generation’s understanding of what happened in the past. So right now, pro-Palestinian people are saying, ‘Ferguson is an example of what is happening in Palestine, and y’all are getting what we’re getting’. That’s just bullshit. First, there’s no time period in which Black police and slave domination have ever ended. Second, the Arabs and the Jews are as much a part of the Black slave trade—the creation of Blackness as social death—as anyone else. As I told a friend of mine, ‘yeah we’re going to help you get rid of Israel, but the moment that you set up your shit we’re going to be right there to jack you up, because anti-Blackness is as important and necessary to the formation of Arab psychic life as it is to the formation of Jewish psychic life.’
I believe that looking at it from an anti-capitalist perspective, from an anti-White supremacist perspective, the Palestinians are right—provisionally—until they get their shit, then they’re wrong. So this is a historical thing: what we have to do is remind each other, to know our history in terms of slavery and our resistance to it, but also to be able to have x-ray vision, and say that just because we’re walking around in suits and ties and are professors and journalists doesn’t mean we’re not slaves. That is, to understand things diachronically. And that will allow us to be in a coalition with people of color, moving on the system with them, but ridiculing them at the same time for the paucity — the lameness — of their desire and demand. And for the fact that we know, once they get over [their own hurdles], the anti-Blackness that sustains them will rear its ugly head again against us. So that we don’t fall into a sort of genuine bonding with people who are really, primarily, using Black energy to catalyze and energize their struggle.