Refusing the state’s self-exoneration

How do we recognize state violence in all of its manifestations? This matters deeply in how we organize around it, refuse it, and how we imagine possibilities beyond it. It matters in our ability to hear the problem spoken in our words in some moments and then when we refuse it in other moments.

The country is reeling from a roundhouse blow that it has felt before, could see coming, and yet of course is freshly painful, insulting, and violent. Much has been written, said, and done by eloquent and strategic thinkers across the nation, articulating “the low intensity war between the state and Black people, and the disproportionate use of force against protesters following the grand jury’s decision” as Robin D. G. Kelley explained. To the analyses and actions that are arising, I offer that we also have to more consistently interrogate the intersectional ways that the state thoroughly exonerates itself of its structured violence. In this essay I do not mean to suggest equivocation of any kind, that how the state treats immigrants and U.S.-born Black people are the same. Far from it. We must, though, understand how these treatments are connected to each other. So connected that the state must exonerate itself through words and actions to distract from the consistent material effect of those expressions. What stays steady is the structure of settler colonialism.

Last week, the President expressed intention to use the constitutional affordance to the executive branch to alter enforcement and pursuit of undocumented migrants. In that ten-minute speech, the President expressed four times the possibility for immigrants to ‘get right with the law,’ referred to the unfair rewarding of people who don’t play by the ‘rules’ six times, and narrated three times that this is a nation built by immigrants. By prioritizing a criminalization of migrants, the state can obscure the conditions it creates and sustains that systemically vulnerablize populations. By omitting this fact as well as its first and ongoing interest in disappearing Indigenous peoples, the violent state is exonerated.

This week, Missouri state prosecutor Bob McColloch spent the first ten minutes of a 25-minute statement indicting social media and witness’ accounts of the murder of Michael Brown as distracting and illegitimate. The narrative of McColloch’s statement was that the jury was the only entity able to provide a “full, impartial and critical examination of all the evidence,” by virtue of their association to the state and how it presented the evidence of the case. By coupling an indictment of the public who came forward as witnesses and others who took to social media to refuse this state violence, McColloch enabled an exoneration of the state, bodily of Darren Wilson, but of structural violence as well.

The default in both statements is a state that is based on and exacts justice, fairness, and impartiality. This is perhaps most apparent in what are framed as deterrents or distractions to the core narrative of the just state.  For example, In President Obama’s statement, he asked if we are a nation that “tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?” This reseats the same logic used in McColloch’s speech, one that indicts in order to exonerate. In this case there is a softer indictment, yet still an indictment for unauthorized migrants as irresponsible, as unlawful and, at most, a patriarchal scolding of the state that has only been momentarily acting badly. This logic normalizes and refreshes a mythic sense of innocence that is possible because of the tandem guilt of Black and brown peoples. Both are necessary to support the sense of entitlement that, in turn, can be at ease with a canyon of injustices.

Globalized racist capitalism is designed for a few to acquire a lot of property. And yet, the collective settler fantasy of entitlement is beautifully being refused. It is being refused, in the demonstrations across the nation. It is being refused as people remind each other of Dr. King’s words that political expression in the streets is a refusal itself of state violence. In the many posts and coverage of the inconsistency of the state in responding to property destruction, there is a refusal of those inconsistent terms.

We can refuse the tropes of ‘justice system’ and ‘broken immigration system’ because they are so absurd. The system is not meant to meter out justice, and the flow of vulnerabilized migrants across nation-state borders is a well-designed outcome of globalized racist capitalism. It is designed to acquire property, to always be acquiring property, in the interest of a few.

Seeing the logic of the settler state and how it positions populations relative to it and often against each other, though, cannot be collapsed into a claim of equal experiences of the state. It is vital to avoid equivocating state violence on Black peoples and immigrant populations. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang explained, equivocations collapse structural analyses, thereby actually furthering coloniality.

Instead, we can more precisely locate these logics as they shift across peoples and refuse them. We can refuse the tandem ways that state violence is enacted. We can refuse a narration that sees last week’s announcements and this week’s events as separate. Our imaginations can take hold more spaciously if we are more nimble in our abilities to recognize the shapeshifting yet consistent effects of state violence and its desires. The time is now.

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