Nottingham has recently been in the grip of a sickening ritual of public commiseration with a police officer shot while on duty. There have been mass card-writing campaigns, phoned-in comments read out on local radio stations, and press coverage on such a scale as to turn the incident – and the almost compulsive emotional display arising from it – into a major story. Through this overwhelming outpouring of what can only be displaced emotions, the system has managed to coopt people into its spectacular functioning – not only on an intellectual level but emotionally, so people feel, not as autonomous beings, but as part of the system’s own identity-categories.
The putrid tide of emotional outpouring for a recipient few of those involved actually know or care about, articulated and driven by reactionary tropes of police as “protectors” and an anti-feminist subtext of distaste for the involvement of women in risky jobs, serves as a totalitarian “order not to think”. Amidst the outpouring, all that is supposed to matter is the life and wellbeing of this one individual, held up as special because of a spectacular-systemic role. Alternative framings of the situation are shunted aside. Even the existence of multiple perspectives on the police and their role is effectively denied by a tide of repressive sameness flooding through the media and incorporating itself into everyday life. Emotion is made to seem something extra-political, yet in this case, it is nothing more than the libidinal underpinnings of a political microfascism of inauthentic humanism. The emotional outpouring is such as to suspend critical reason – confirming in this case at least, the role of emotion identified by Sartre, as something one “retreats” into as one might into drugs or alcohol. The most sinister aspect of the phenomenon is perhaps the least noticed: a suspension of the performative effectivity of conscious awareness of the police and their role.
This whole charade is reminiscent on a smaller scale of the ridiculous astonishment which accompanied reactions to the massacre now conventionally referred to as “911”. Ward Churchill’s apt response, and the witch-hunt against him provoked by this response, are a notable parallel. Churchill came under attack, for one reason alone: he turned the gaze of critique on the framing of the situation and thus dared to defy the “order not to think” embedded in the media-induced emotional intensity of the conformist-mainstream hysteria. Because of this emotional repressiveness – because the intense (though reactive) emotional reactions of those (mostly unconnected to the events) who felt them only as tragedy, without framework and context – Churchill’s comments were taken as offensive, because they dared to disagree with this fantasmatic framing of the event and to put forward an alternative frame with reference to the facts and discourses elided by the dominant discourse.
Even more sinister parallels can be drawn from history. The same repressive emotionality underlies right-populist discourses of all kinds, and provides the libidinal underpinnings for mass social complicity – for the phenomenon of “willing executioners” observed repeatedly in all cases of genuinely popular totalitarianisms. One only has to think, for instance, of the reaction in Germany to the assassination of the German ambassador to France by a Jewish partisan. This is as clear an example of Churchill’s “roosting chickens” or Fanon’s “boomerang” as one is likely to find – yet still, the framing of the incident within Germany was one of emotional outpouring for the “victim”, which led to anti-Jewish pogroms. The same kind of sympathy, channelled constantly to the system’s agents and denied to its victims, was absolutely typical of the manipulation of emotion by the Nazi regime – the Winter Aid initiative being a similar example.
This is why the repressive emotionality of the current shot-cop hysteria is rightly depicted as totalitarian. The emotional force of an incident for those who share a dominant frame is used as a pretext for refusing on principle to even consider the possible validity of alternative framings. In each fascist and colonialist system, the same emotional devices operate in order to impose a pro-system framework. The most sinister effects of this totalitarian deluge of spectacle-channelled emotions are twofold. First of all, they confirm the privileging of whatever are the unmarked terms in a situation, and the asymmetrical construction of out-groups – thus reinforcing systematic racism and related prejudices. And secondly, they suspend the performative effectivity of whatever awareness exists of systematic oppression, injustice, and rightful claims on the part of the oppressed.
The resultant framework is one where even the potentially critical sectors of society get drawn into a fetishistic framework – they know very well that the system is oppressive, they know very well that its agents are no angels, “but still they keep doing it”… acting out the emotional conformity to the system’s categories – not only acting-out, but actually feeling these conformist emotions – in such a way that the nihilism of the other becomes unthinkable, that the extreme reactions which an oppressive system generates become not only “barely unjust” but totally incomprehensible in a way the system’s own “crimes” are not, and that the system thus becomes “right even when it is wrong” – it can produce the emotional effect of being the “good guy”, whatever it does and however much it brings about the social war which is the subject of its grief.
One could multiply examples (the asymmetrical frame applied to Israeli and Palestinian human rights violations and the existence of Israeli “victims of terrorism” groups which one-sidedly use “human rights” to support Zionism, the attitude to soldiers killed in imperialist wars such as the occupation of Iraq, the previous reactions to slain police such as one slain in combat while attacking the Broadwater Farm insurrection, another slain by a terrified immigrant wrongly accused of using ricin, and yet another whose slaying prompted calls by hysterical police for the introduction of the “death penalty”, a further expansion of the police-state through CCTV numberplate tracking, and the murder of an innocent Somali) but it is useful at this point to emphasise what is left out of the frame set by the repressive emotionality of the conformist response. The police are an inherently violent organisation, especially in their relations with excluded social groups. They are effectively an internal army of occupation in many communities. Even in their legitimatory discourse, they willingly take risks and expect a violent response – this is something they expect as part of their “job”. Every year, the British police murder dozens of people – mostly black, Irish, foreign, or psychologically different – in the form of “deaths in custody”. This far exceeds the minuscule number of police who are slain in the line of “duty”. The murder of Carlo Giuliani and two other protesters during the Genoa protests, the deliberate life-risking attack on protesters holding a bridge in Evian, and the cold-blooded murder of a Brazilian engineer on the London Underground all come to mind as spectacular examples of how these alleged “protectors” really act. While some of these murders by police are deemed “newsworthy”, none of them are framed in the same way in the mainstream. Thus, after the Giuliani murder, Time magazine actually ran an article encouraging sympathy with the police themselves and the problems they face, rather than the victims of their violence – who were, rather, blamed for the police’s actions. After the Tube murder, politicians rushed to make excuses for the police, and senior cops threatened further murders. In none of these cases was the grief related to the victims able to overwhelm debate – so it is a clear case of bias when the same is accorded to police.
The context is also one where police racism is pervasive, where the police practice a violent form of internal colonialism in certain areas (including the area where the shooting happened), and where indefensible oppressive police powers such as “stop and search” are a constant offence against human rights and dignity. A context therefore, where fear and hatred of the police among the socially-excluded are hardly random or misguided, and where certain people have a well-founded fear of violence and persecution when the police approach. The police often treat people in a demeaning and intolerant way, failing to take account of people’s needs and rights.
Finally, the context is one where the police indirectly cause or contribute to massive numbers of deaths through their role in defending capitalist exploitation, neoliberalism (with its resultant “surplus deaths” among the poor, as revealed in Treanor’s article “How Many People Did Thatcher Kill?”), international economic oppression which kills thousands through famine and other causes every day, the Iraq war and other imperialist projects, ecological destruction, and other capitalist causes of mass death. The “drug war” in which the police are involved, is a practice of violent genocide against the Colombian peasants, armed suppression of starving Afghan peasants, cultural imperialism in Bolivia and Yemen, and repeated murders of medical marijuana patients and other drug users in America and around the world (e.g. a paraplegic man who was jailed for minor drug offences and died for lack of treatment in prison, because an arrogant judge put the fascistic drug war above his life).
So when one hears the media story that the man who shot this latest police “victim” was allegedly a low-level drug dealer, when one hears that he was afraid of being stopped and searched because of a separate incident in which he was not involved (a burglary in the area) – despite there being no evidence linking him to this, one is hearing a story of the effects of police terror. Were it not for the indefensible stop-and-search laws, he would have had no reason to fear being searched. Were it not for pervasive police racism and a legal framework allowing arbitrary abuses of police power, he would not have had grounds to fear being persecuted over a “crime” in which he was not involved. Were it not for the draconian “drug war” and its intolerance and racism, he would have had less reason to wish to avoid being searched. Were it not for the growing (and possibly illegal) propensity for Nottingham police in this particular area to routinely arm themselves, such drastic forms of violence as shooting would seem less necessary to avoid persecution. The spread of police terror in everyday life is thus something which creates a drastic “either-or” – the more legal “powers” the police grab, and the greater the violence of their intrusions, the more extreme are the only measures available as alternatives to submission. So if the allegations are true, the perpetrator reacted to an imminent and well-grounded fear of persecution, arising from systematic injustice. This is not some terrible inexplicable act of violence; it is a totally comprehensible response to real fears grounded in oppressive social relations.
The dominant framing is thus oppressive and racist. By denying meaning to the alleged perpetrator, it frames the issue as one of random violence by a demoniac other – an other inscribed in the decent-majority/criminal-minority binary, into which feed class prejudice, racism, normalism, the criminalisation of entire strata of people. It is racist in that, while a white police officer is accorded comprehensible motives for even the most excessive act of violence, a socially-excluded black person is denied even the most obvious motives arising from pervasive relations of oppression.
One danger in these kinds of situations is also a further unleashing of the arbitrary violence of the police. Because of the structural framing of the conformist reaction, issues of racism, police abuse, police violence, civil liberties, are eclipsed entirely. As a result, the police get away with abuses in the immediate aftermath – such as interference with freedom of movement in the area of the incident – without any objection from the media or the mainstream. When framed in the way this one has been, such incidents can be used to push us further down the slippery slope to total state power, by serving as the “evidence” to back some specific repressive project, by generating a felt “need” to “do something” or by feeding into broader reactionary perceptions of rampant disorder. Cops can use the outpouring of emotion as an excuse to silence their critics, to stitch-up the innocent and to demonise the “guilty”. And the process is endless in scope – repressive measures further reduce the viable alternatives to submission, generating more and more extreme reactions, which if framed in the same way, can justify an endless march to hell.
I admit, I found myself not only emotionally alienated from the mainstream reaction, but also hoping the perpetrator remained on the run. Not because I sympathise with his way of life or with the shooting specifically, but because the mitigating circumstances surrounding his actions are being ignored, and he will thus be treated unfairly if caught. Another reason I hoped the perpetrator would stay on the run, is that every penny and every agent the police spend catching this person is a penny or an agent who is not being used to uphold capitalism. Like it or not, the big issues such as world poverty and ecological devastation are on such a scale that even the smallest reduction in prevention of the effectiveness of protest would do far more to prevent deaths than the apprehension of many, many people who might, or even would, kill somebody again – and that is even on the assumption that the people who are caught are actually being prevented from harmful actions. All the evidence is to the contrary – that deterrence is a myth, that people who are punished are rendered more (not less) likely to “reoffend”, and that harsh punitive measures have no effect whatsoever on overall “crime”, or in some cases increase it. So catching someone who did something in the past, does precisely no substantive good. It just makes the conformist majority feel better about themselves – which after all, is what the whole exercise is about in any case.
But to return to the main reason. Pro-police media and judicial bias, and structural bias in the laws themselves, ensure that these circumstances will not have an effect in court. In the context of pervasive oppression, and given the well-founded fear of persecution, the shooting is manslaughter at best, if not actual self-defence. Yet the emotional hysteria surrounding the case, its framing in terms of heroic protector against monstrous other and of a “victim” portrayed in almost beatific terms, are sure to rub off on the case itself, ensuring systematic unfairness. Someone already framed as demoniac other cannot be “innocent”. And even if the person accused is totally substantively innocent, they are likely to be convicted in order to provide a satisfying end to the narrative for the conformists, and because such a person, if they can be cast in an appropriately othered mould, can be blamed via the fantasmatic identification with the perpetrator – whether they were the perpetrator or not.
Compare here the ridiculous conviction in the “ricin case” of an individual who killed a cop. The man’s defence was that he acted out of fear, having been confronted and victimised by armed police, in a context where his expectations of the police were based on the overtly fascist practices of the Algerian state. The only response the state had to this, the only alternative motive it could propose, was that he was desperate because his terrorist ricin plot was about to be exposed. Yet as we all know, there was no ricin plot; this motive is impossible. Nevertheless, he was convicted of murder based on the state account. Presumably because a hysteria very like the present one bore down on the case. Everyone believed in the ricin plot, and everyone believed that a “suspected terrorist” who kills a cop – however substantively innocent of terrorism – could not be “innocent”. It would be scandalous to the mainstream if this were decided. An Algerian immigrant cannot on principle have mitigating circumstances in a confrontation with an epistemologically-privileged agent. Similarly, a schizophrenic man was stitched-up for the killing of Jill Dando, not because there was any substantive evidence against him, nor even because he had any motive, but simply because he was demonised as the kind of person who might do something like this. Thus, whether substantively “guilty” or not, the oppressed never get a fair hearing.
For this reason, the simplistic “help the police” reaction is always misguided. Helping the police to catch a “guilty” or accused person is often not the right thing to do – not because the “crime” was necessarily justified, but because of systematic patterns of abuse which convict the innocent along with the guilty, which ignore mitigating circumstances, and which dish out vengeful punishments based on repressive categories. Ken Livingstone’s disgusting remarks after the London bombings – that we should “help the police”, give them evidence to track down the alleged bombers – ignored completely the fact that at this time, under the cover of the hysteria constructed around the bombings, the police were engaged in a series of vicious attacks against mostly innocent people, holding children at gunpoint in the street, dragging a man to jail for having a computer at a station, and finally gunning down an innocent man for no reason whatsoever. To give evidence to the police in this context, is to give them material they can use to persecute the innocent, using laws which are indefensible and assumptions which are racist and abusive. It is giving the police a pretext and a motive to persecute, terrorise, maybe even murder somebody who could easily be innocent. It is a bit like handing a Jew to the gestapo (though obviously the police only actually kill in a small proportion of cases); it is helping an organisation which is predictably racist and abusive, to act in a racist and abusive manner. Thus the marginal possibility of actually helping to prevent a “terrorist” attack, is massively outweighed by the clear and present danger of contributing to innocent or barely-guilty people being harmed by the police – not to mention the legitimacy one gives to the “war on terror” by helping to frame the appropriate response as juridical and repressive rather than political.
Even on the most pro-police defensible position one could take, any duty to give evidence would be dependent on the legitimacy of the law one is giving evidence about the breaking of and the powers and procedures the police would use to investigate this evidence. One would have to have faith that the police would use this evidence reasonably, for such an action to be legitimate. Clearly no such faith is viable today, in relation to cases where racist and social-cleansing-linked hysteria has been hyped up. Yet people who should know better, are still sympathising with the police and hoping the perpetrator is caught. They would still give evidence if they had it, even if there was a risk it pointed to the wrong person. Similarly, opponents of the death penalty would often give evidence leading to someone receiving the death penalty. Thus, the fetishist relation – “I know very well but still…” – converts into a real complicity. This is also a negation of one’s own will – since one’s ethical commitments and one’s awareness of police abuse contribute precisely nothing in determining how one acts, one renders these views worthless and cost-free for the system. It should be unsurprising when the system, confident in its critics’ unconditional conformity whatever its extremity, sees fit to ignore an opposition which has no performative effects.
Because of the suspension of performativity, the state can get away with anything – the state is living in utter impunity, its abstract legitimacy never affected by its actions. This is exactly the reason why the state can get away with civil rights violations, with repressive laws and arrangements, and with murder. It knows these actions are cost-free; that when chickens come to roost, people will still rally around a fallen oppressor. It might seem to be humanistic, but in fact it is spitting in the faces of the oppressed and contributing to making oppression possible. It effectively means holding the oppressed down so the state can strike blows against them.
In one way, there is a substratum to the sickening emotional reaction which is understandable. It is drawing on a hostility to people being shot and killed in general – on a utopian hope for a world where this kind of thing simply doesn’t happen. But this is where its redeeming features end. This hope is being articulated into a repressive system, and deployed inconsistently and in prejudicial ways. The same people who shed tears for shot cops, mostly care not a jolt for people murdered by the police, or for the victims of capitalism. The “humanity” of the reaction is thus utterly false. This is not some enlightened humanism of caring for others and of nonviolence. It is, rather, a selective empathy for certain others, orchestrated by ideological apparatuses around fantasmatic constructs. It is a denial of the humanity of the excluded others who are the victims of state power, a “humanity” of the included which functions around a dehumanisation of the excluded. It is a humanisation of the oppressor, at the expense of the oppressed. In this, therefore, it is paradoxically necessary, so as to be truly “humanistic”, to relativise the human suffering of the included – so as to bring the voiceless back in. Against the “humanism” of concern for shot cops, SS officers and French settlers, a good dose of Fanon is needed.
Oppressors who wage war, usually get it. This is neither a mystery, nor a demoniac otherness. Of course, the oppressed other is capable of brutality, of inhumanity, of unjustified actions – and just as clearly, justified self-defence sometimes has painful effects. This is no excuse for sympathising with oppressors, for taking part in their one-sided rituals of ersatz emotionality, or for supporting their vendettas against their enemies. The slogan “no justice, no peace” is often heard. But what, really, does it mean? Until “no justice, no peace” becomes not merely slogan but actuality – until the emotional and performative effectivity of state violence is no longer suspended in rituals