Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Miners Use Police to Shoot Eachother

In my previous post, I discussed how, for the media, police action is akin to a weather pattern, an atmospheric event. Cops are incapable of being responsible for the violence that they produce.* (Of course, as soon as a police officer is killed [on or off-duty] or someone makes an argument against the police qua police, their subjecthood/individuality is invoked as tantamount, but that's another conversation).

This conception of police violence is not limited to the media: prosecutors and the justice system see police in a similar way. Today murder charges are finally being brought in August 16th's police massacre of 34 striking South African miners, but the accused are the murdered miners' co-strikers. Here's Frank Lesenyego, head of South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority:

"It's technical but, in legal [terms], when people attack or confront [the police] and a shooting takes place which results in fatalities ... suspects arrested, irrespective of whether they shot police members or the police shot them, are charged with murder."

It's technical. While it may appear, to the layman, that police opened fire on the strikers, shooting many in the back as they tried to flee a barbed-wire enclosure the police had trapped them in, in fact their deaths are the inevitable and objective outcome of challenging police authority.

Lesenyego's logic is perfect if you don't treat the police as subjects/people: if you were driving a bus and smashed into a wall, killing the passengers inside, it would be madness to charge the wall with murder, but there's at least a case to be made that, as the driver, you are at fault.

Police move to apprehend the horrible monsters that made them open fire

In a sense, this is an extreme and grotesque version of the non-violence ideologue arguing that, by yelling "Fuck the Police", or taking the street, or building barricades, you in fact are responsible for the pepper spray, baton blows and non-lethal rounds. It is identical to the logic of the media scrubbing clean the description of the Empire State Building shooting. In this logic, police violence of any kind is always justifiable, always proportional to the situation, because the police are atmospheric facts, the state made flesh, not an actor but a thing. Fighting the cops is like jumping off the roof: you might survive, but if you don't, it's no one's fault but your own.

While you are certainly more likely to face police violence being in a militant protest than sitting at home watching Breaking Bad, while the miners would've been safer not striking for a living wage, minimally safe working conditions and instead continuing to harvest platinum at great personal danger for lower-than-poverty wages, to accuse the strikers or protesters of causing the police's violence is to perpetuate this logic of the always-already innocent police.

And as much as this logic justifies police violence, it also makes imagining a world without the police that much harder: as long as police violence is as objective, arbitrary and natural as a rain storm, the end of the police as an institution is as impossible a dream as eternal life.

All solidarity to the arrested miners, and to those who continue to strike despite the obscene violence of the state and their bosses. Here's hoping they beat these bullshit charges. 

*I am indebted for much of this framing to Evan Calder Williams, whose work on the police-as-hostile-object directly informs my understanding.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Media is better police

The story first broke with the salacious glee of a journalist knowing he’s about to get paid. Another mass shooting, this time in New York City, at the Empire State Building of all places? Such senseless good luck for a media saturated with mass murder: the symbolic weight of that building, which patiently outlasted its twin competitors for tallest in the city honors, and to top it off the killer was a disgruntled employee recently laid off? Nine wounded in an outburst of class warfare and another crazy terrorist to add to the arsenal of reasons for NYPD empowerment. You could practically hear Ray Kelly smacking his lips.

Everything was going according to script: the liberals cried for gun control and conservatives counter proposed concealed carry, the news agencies played live footage and the anchors employed their most somber tones, and the consumption and de-politicization of another Imaginary Party member’s rage took its well practiced course.

That is, of course, until a couple on-site cameras revealed that, actually, this madman wasn’t firing wildly into the crowd, just killing his old tormentor and then putting down his gun, and it was police who shot nine bystanders before killing him, in what is their second cell-phone captured daylight murder this month. And when the news came out that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of New York’s finest turned a murder into a shooting gallery, coverage of the violence dropped off dramatically.

But, try as they might, it was too late to bury the story: people wanted to know what happened, so the newsmen all changed their tune (and their ledes). The nine were not ‘wounded’ but ‘injured’, not ‘shot’ but ‘grazed’ by bullets. The New York times described police shooting nine people as “nine people were wounded in gunfire”, as though “gunfire” were a weather pattern. This is more than just passive voice, there are no shooters here at all.

Because when the police shoot somebody it is not a tragedy, it is not senseless, it is not an oturage or mayhem or further evidence of our nation’s moral and social collapse. It is not even done by people, but by the environment: it becomes just something that happens, a freak accident, as abstract and passive a news event as a snowstorm. If they could, they would leave the nine people out of it, but the media was too eager, pounced too fast on the story to successfully drop their presence, and so instead the police line is repeated ad nauseum: “[Ray] Kelly’s comments reinforce the picture that began to emerge on Friday: that in acting quickly and with deadly force, the police prevented the gunman, Jeffrey T. Johnson, 58, from inflicting more harm but in so doing also were responsible for many of the injuries.” Clearly we should thank the police for preventing more harm from being inflicted by the gunman. Just imagine how many people he could have shot with the four bullets he had left!

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Police don’t kill people either, and that’s because, when it comes down to it, police are more guns than people, objects not only absolved from but incapable of personal responsibility. The news will always keep the police from the subject position of any negative story, because the newspapers, magazines, bloggers and reporters are the other part of the police, the pretty face and soothing voice that apologizes for the long arm’s blows, which mystifies police actions and empties violence of political content, which transforms rage into madness and antagonism into insanity.

No matter that the killer is remorseless, that he speaks calmly and rationally about his actions, no matter how many public murders occur in succession, the media will never allow an explanation other than complete madness. That’s why its so important that the police kill the murderer rather than even attempting an arrest, that the media silence him by stripping his actions of anything but the most apolitical ‘personal’ motives. The media understands this process better even than the police, (who ultimately are blunt, stupid instruments); the vigour with which they disavow understanding these acts gives them away. Because the killings wont end, the killings are terminal struggles against a totality that makes itself appear so vast and endless that a bullet becomes the only way out.