Post-Script, Monday May 20th
I was flicking through an anthology by Audre Lorde the other day and found this poem. It’s called A Meeting of Minds, she wrote it in 1986, and it made me think of 15C – its silences and its seductions.
In a dream
she is not allowed
the agent of control is a zoning bee
her lips are wired to explode
at the slightest conversation
in a crystal
other women are chatting
the walls are written in honey
in the dream
she is not allowed
to kiss her own mother
the agent of control
is a white pencil
Her words joined me for the closing arguments of Floyd today. The grand finale of an epic show, I was looking forward to seeing the whole cast of characters – judge, lawyers, plaintiffs, witnesses, press, bouncers, spectators – return to this crystal-stage for one last collective cancan. I donned my pearls and monocle, jumped on my bike, and headed over Williamsburg Bridge for my last romantic ride-montage. Manhattan misty-ing, police patrolling, flags flying, security scanning…
And courtrooms overflowing. I made it in, just. The turnout was incredible and sustained throughout the day. As I overheard someone say, this trial is History-making. Floyd has the potential to affect, protect, save the lives of millions of New Yorkers otherwise terrorized by the NYPD.
At least, that’s the hope.
The defense counsel opened with a reminder that NYC is “still a big city”. Their point, you (rightfully) ask? It’s hard to maintain safety, and the NYPD are doing their best. Meanwhile the “confused” and “arrogant” plaintiffs have been indignantly finding police-speak “liability-inducing”: racial profiling is “more fiction than reality” – the actual “struggle” is “between management and employees about getting the work done”; “quotas” are not “performance goals” – the latter are about addressing the crime condition.
And just because a black person makes a complaint against the NYPD does not mean it’s about race. Indeed this assumption, they continued, is “inherently offensive” (at which point we spectators made a collective hard-to-describe incredulous-sound– there is Something So Off about hearing this proclamation that they are the ones arguing against racism).
The defense went on to attack the 19 stops described by the 12 witnesses over the past ten weeks – working hard to undermine people’s credibility (bad memories, bad agendas) and validate the officers’ reasonable suspicion (bad areas, bad times, bad descriptions). And/or argue that the testimonies were not actually about Terry stops as people were “free to leave” and therefore “voluntarily chose” to interact with the police.
As the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR’s) lawyer argued in their own closing arguments, this latter point is “patently ridiculous”. These interactions are soaked in not only power imbalances, but past, present, and future experiences of police brutality.
And with regard to the penultimate point, as Judge Scheindlin argued, “if your reasonable suspicion is wrong 90 percent of the time, that’s a lot of misjudgment of suspicion”. In response, the defense claimed that stops’ outcomes do not erase the validity of officers’ initial suspicion. This is true. But it still does not take into account that the police-lens is historically, politically, professionally, statistically constructed in such a way as to, in the Judge’s words, “add race in as a reasonable suspicion variable”.
Or, in CCR’s words, relentlessly deployed justifications like ‘suspect description’ and ‘high crime area’ are “nothing more than smoke and mirrors”; NYPD policy is "stop first, invent reasons later”. It is race that has become "a proxy for reasonable suspicion”.
And then, CCR continued, the NYPD have taken a "head in the sand approach” to the effects of these racist practices. Disavowing the possibility of racism following years of complaints about police harassment from almost exclusively brown and black communities is not only “disingenuous”, but “evidence itself of deliberate indifference”.
Like their switch to the phrase ‘racially motivated’, CCR’s use of the word 'deliberate’ here made me uneasy. I realize these terms are more palatable to the Western (imperial, neoliberal, colonial) courthouse, yet they also contribute to its bracketed ideologies. Those same ones that move with/in the defense’s emphasis that none of the stops involved comments about race, and their recurring insinuation that racism could only come from white bodies.
All of which allude to a dubious and dangerous understanding of race and racism as nouns. As much as conservative and liberal agendas might wish otherwise, these are not entities (whether attitudes, or melanin) that reside in an individual. More like some sort of co-produced verbs, we do not have them, we do them; they do not exist, they become; we should speak not of intention, but of effect…
While thankfully the Judge did question if racial comments and slurs were really the only indicators of racism, my colleague María Elena Torre from the Morris Justice Project reminded me that beyond Pearl Street there is no shortage of this evidence. The verbal racism that people experience from police is so violent, explicit, and everyday that this section of their participatory survey with folks from the Bronx was often initially left blank.A loud silence (NB: not an absence) that perhaps also echoes in why – as the defense gleefully pointed out today – CCR were ‘only’ able to get 12 witnesses to testify against the police. Both provide further proof of police brutality as terror-fying and constant.
A collision (collusion) fertile for the calculation of distrust and serious wonderings if things could ever be any different.
Which brings me to remedies. The defense boasted the NYPD’s “self-initiated organic efforts” – arguing that the organization is “a big ship but slowly turning”. It follows, apparently, that no changes are necessary. In fact these will be “burdensome” and “expensive”, “fatally undermine the chain of command”, and obstruct their ability to police ‘properly’.
CCR on the other hand, argued that historyhas shown us to be “guilty of trusting the NYPD to address issues on their own”. They have not fulfilled the Daniels’ recommendations nor even the supervision process outlined by high-ranking NYPD officials in this trial. Instead they suggest, ahem:
1. a new 250, with sections for stops’ constitutionality and any witnessing officers, and a carbon-copy for the person stopped that inclines details of the main officer involved and how to make a complaint;
2. getting rid of Operations Order 52, which authorizes the pressure on officers to meet ‘performance standards’;
3. holding supervisors accountable for bad stops, including with regard to their documentation and review;
4. a joint remedy process with input from community members and other stakeholders, and facilitation by an external person with experience in mediation and police reform; and
5. an external monitor with sufficient power to make sure that these changes actually happen.
And then there was the Judge’s (((alarming))) suggestion of body-worn cameras…
Slavoj Zizek argues that the art of politics is to make demands that are at once thoroughly realistic and de facto impossible. That is, ones that are doable yet disturb the very core of the hegemonic ideology. It was not until the final five minutes that I saw a possible opening for this disturbance. A tangent for some, a line of flight for me, CCR’s closing closing lawyer mentioned 9/11 for (at least as far as I can recall) the first time. In the same breath as a reference to Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech about the need for stop & frisk to deter gun violence and therefore deaths – pushing fear and a shift to view the police as no longer “first responders” but “first preventers”, CCR’s arguments started to move ever so gently towards the affective and material (un)limits of anticipatory policing.
Although soon interrupted by a flummoxed defense after a puppeteer in the spectator area loudly hissed at the lead counsel to object, that this movement was made explicit in this space is critical. If we do not witness how stop & frisk – and the regime of militant, racist policing from which it emerges – circulates with/in (inter)national politics of terror – our lips remain wired and the bee continues to separate us.
… to keep with Lorde’s imagery…
Propelled through surveillance, fear is what stings. It is what Brian Massumi argues is the ‘affective fact’ of securitization, what Patricia Clough and Craig Willse argue provides the ‘rhetoric of motive’ for neoliberalism. And what poisons our capacity for connectivities and creativity. It is in our social relations – the defiance of divide and conquer, the meeting of minds for diverse imaginings – that lies radical emancipatory potential.
Revolution demands techniques that interrupt the circulation of fear alongside a dream-space of shared stories, histories, possibilities, and a rainbow-pile of colored pencils.
I hope that Floyd has helped to arouse public awareness and outrage, yet we cannot be seduced by the honey-illusion that a court decision will be enough. As Zizek argues, “It is the people who have the answers. They just do [(may)] not know [(they know)] the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer”.