Black Lives Matter and The White Society of the Spectacle

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In this post, Barnor Hesse and S. Sayyid argue that the latest protests in support of Black Lives Matter illustrate how the racially unfamiliar has recast the racially familiar, creating spaces for an enduring politics of Blackness that expands the decolonial horizon.

We have been here before: another killing of a Black man by a White police officer in the US. It is all too common. This time, however, something different, something else also happened. The social context is both racially familiar and racially unfamiliar. First, the racially familiar. Only a few weeks before George Floyd was killed, during the last week of February, a young Black man named Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by two White civilians in Glynn County, Georgia, while he was out jogging, and within the same time frame, Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, was also shot and killed by police officers who entered the wrong address with a no-knock warrant. Although the killing of Arbery was recorded on video and the killing of Taylor went under the radar for some time, their stories are so racially familiar that the killing of Floyd seemed to almost simply add another ‘seen it before Black execution’ to an expanding list. Second, the racially unfamiliar. The Black protests catalysed by Floyd’s death took place in the middle of the Covid-19 global epidemic, which had already begun to reveal, both in the US and the UK, not only the disproportionate number of Black and Brown deaths due to the virus, but also the high concentration of Black and Brown communities among the frontline workers who suffered the greatest exposure to the virus. Within that landscape circulated a viral video of a White police officer kneeling maliciously on the neck of Floyd, who was gasping that he couldn’t breathe, laying disabled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, eventually calling out for his dead mother, while the police officer, with one hand residing casually in his side pocket, continued to apply knee pressure to Floyd’s neck until he lost his life. The speed with which protests catalysed across the 50 states of the US and across the planet, with a racially unfamiliar, intense acceleration, accumulating in a pandemic of dispersed Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements contesting police brutality, structural racism and White supremacy, was revolutionary. These are also Black-led protests that are mobilising far greater numbers of White protestors than ever seen before, under the banner of BLM, a radically different and more racially unfamiliar composition than the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore over five years previously. It was clear that the racially unfamiliar has recast the racially familiar; we are here again, but it is no longer clear where here is.

The Revolution Will Be Digitised

Floyd’s sadistic death was captured on a video phone camera by a Black teenager, 17-year old Darnella Frazier, who was on her way to the store when the death scene took place. Her video footage resembles cinema verité, distilling in exacting detail all the associations that have come to define the racial policing assaults on Black life, right down to the cruelly iconic sound of the phrase, ‘I can’t breathe’, immortalised in the last words of Eric Garner, who was killed in a similar manner by police in New York back in 2014. The Floyd death footage has gone into massive social media circulation, and is resonating affectively across different publics, populations and nations, immediately making legible many other instances of police brutality against Black people, both historically archived and contemporaneously stored on cell phones and computers across many parts of the world: France, Brazil, Australia, the UK, Canada. The uprisings in American streets were sparked by these video forensics and were repeated in many places across the nation and the globe, wherever they were disseminated; periodically they have been met with militarised police brutality, particularly in the US, ironically affirming the structural relation between racism, violence and policing that are the grounds for the protests in the first place. The paradoxical racial problem of the police policing Black-led protests against the police killings of Black people is not lost on national and global publics.

The planetary digitisation of Black-led, multi-racial protests has inaugurated what might be described as the White society of the Spectacle. French philosopher Guy Debord once suggested that the commodification of Western societies has produced a sectoral consumerist vision that operated as if it were a mirror of the whole society; he called this vision-mirror ‘the Spectacle,’ arguing that it has become the unifying part of society ‘where all attention, all consciousness converges’. In addition, Debord suggested that the Spectacle had ‘colonised’ society. What the protests have revealed in the midst of the Coiv-19 pandemic is a radical interruption of the Spectacle of consumer democracies and a convergence of global consciousness focusing on Black-led populations questioning structural racism, the Whiteness of these societies and their unresolved colonisation of racial life.

We describe this as the emergence of the White Society of the Spectacle because it is both unprecedented and unsettling; it threatens all of us with the militarisation of Whiteness through policing, without even the façade of waiting for consent, and the resurgence of street fighting White nationalists who feel their sovereignty tumbling down, highlighting the questioning of Whiteness all around them. The spillover of the protests against police killings into coeval movements to dismantle and disestablish statues and monuments that commemorate confederate generals, slave owners, slave traders and imperialist heroes has established a narrative that is beginning to captivate the media of White societies in the full glare of its traditionally disavowed relations and institutions of White sovereignty.  All these expanded associations and antagonisms of the BLM protests illuminate the White Society of the Spectacle. They make the racist violence of White police and civilians visual and visceral, something that fixes our contemplation and interrupts our short attention span, for a never decreasing moment. It is as if we are witnessing the facts of anti-Blackness finally being archived, for posterity, rather than conveniently buried away under White amnesia as they were at the end of de jure Empire and Jim Crow.

Protests in the Time of a Pandemic

If anything suggests that there are Two Americas, it is the parallel and overlapping protests that separately surround what can still be described as White America and Black America. Not too long into the period of the COVID 19 lockdown, hundreds of mostly White people demonstrated in many state capitals were demanding the lifting of the lockdown, often brandishing automatic weapons and risking infection but also managing not to trigger a militarised police response. It is safe to assume that many of these protestors either did not believe that COVID 19 existed or, if it did exist, they believed it was not a serious public health risk. Later in the pandemic, there were also protests, mostly from White Americans, against the wearing of masks; they saw this as an infringement of their civil liberties rather than providing a protective layer to insulate their fellow Americans from contracting the virus through exhalation. This too, is revealing; some White citizens are more concerned about their abstract consumer liberties rather than any social responsibilities to their fellow citizens. It is clear that they are not afraid for their lives, either from the virus or from the police. Where these White lives mattered was all about getting back to bars, coffee shops, beaches and hairdressers; these are not lives who are contemplating, in the remotest, the prospect of annihilation by the police anytime soon. This White America is the pursuit of happiness America, now the Make America Great Again movement, oblivious to or indulgent of the history of White supremacy that had produced Black America as the protesting America, now embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black and Brown people who are protesting are aware that they might be at higher risk from COVID 19 than others in their country; nevertheless, they go into areas of demonstration where their rights of citizenship are not guaranteed by the police. But there is also another America involved in the protests, a seemingly Post-White America, in which differently evolving critical positionalities against White supremacy have begun to occupy the spotlight of mainstreaming Black protest. This version of a post-White America, however precarious in formation, may well be a product of anti-racist nation-building. It is undoubtedly an idea of America shaped intimately by Black popular culture, intensely attuned to and literate in the discourses of Black Lives Matter. In augmenting and expanding the national horizons of those mobilised under the banner of BLM, the multi-racial involvement of a greater proportion of White citizens than ever before in Black-led mobilisations has spawned protests that have become the largest social movement in US history.

Demonstrating the Decolonial

Despite the US being in the eye of the storm of these mobilisations, the BLM protests have become and remain global, occurring in societies like the UK, France, Canada and Australia, which all have long colonial-racial histories of degrading Black populations, while affirming White supremacy, racial capitalism and police brutality. Protests have taken place in countries in which officially there is no racism (France); they have occurred in countries whose travel brochures present them as racial rainbow nations (Brazil); they have occurred in countries in which racism is regularly dismissed as ancient history of the 1960s, 70s and 80s (UK). These protests are multiracial; it is not just the friends and family of those directly affected by the loss of loved ones who are protesting. Those who protest exceed the usual suspects of activism and agitation. This multiculturalism is not, however, merely ethnographic or empirical: it is also political, in that the demands go beyond a narrow conception of interests and become the articulation of a principle that is general rather than sectional. The undoing of White supremacy is a matter of principle rather than a matter of detail. The issue is no longer the fate of the police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, or the myriad other incidents of police brutality and violence directed against people of colour; instead, the protests have become a systemic critique of normalised colonial formations of institutional and iconic White supremacy. There is, in other words, an emergent decolonial horizon that makes legible what is being imagined in contesting the links of Whiteness between the colonial, the racial and the modern. The decolonial legibility of these protests appears in two significant ways. First, the recognition that police violence in the Minnesotan street can be linked through the extension of an equivalent logic to the toppling of statues of slave traders, eugenicists and the architects of the European colonial-racial enterprise. It generates a public space where it can be demonstrated that contemporary manifestations of racism are part of the colonial institutional and iconic inheritance of the modern world. Second, the Black Lives Matters global mobilisation is not only historical but also historiographical. It intervenes in the power-knowledge relation of Western societies, which in order to esteem liberalism, capitalism and democracy as universal deny the continuum of their lineages in colonial-racial institutions and thereby provide a corrective to the ‘White man’s view of history,’ which remains hegemonic in national public spaces across the planet. The decolonial agenda involves the dismantling and excavating of the White supremacist foundations of what passes for normal in our social lives and opens up the possibilities of the anti-racist recalibration of new forms of social and political life.

There are no Black-led protests without pushbacks or backlashes from state racism and White nationalism in civil society. At the same time, Black political ideas can become recuperated into the previous liberal assimilationist ideas of diversity and racial justice that emerge as appealing forms of compromise when the Black political energies of activism are drained or disillusioned, or when alliances and coalitions become strained… The nascent Black Lives Matter movement’s decolonial agenda has to find ways to effectively navigate these ever-present risks, in order to avoid a de-politicisation of the movement through the incorporation of policies that appear to promise but actually defer the dis-mantling of White supremacy. One of the polarising dividing lines that White supremacy historically drew and continues to draw upon is one that separates White people, who are elevated as people with history and the political, from Black people, who are degraded and subordinated as people without history and political. At this juncture, the question facing BLM is whether its historiography of the decolonial present can transcend the impending White supremacist backlash and translate into the sedimentation of an enduring politics of Blackness that expands the decolonial horizon.

Barnor Hesse is an Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology at the Department of African American Studies, Northwestern University; S. Sayyid is Professor of Social Theory & Decolonial Thought and Head of School of the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds.