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South Africa-USA: The class character of police violence

Abolition across the Atlantic

Tuesday 16 June 2020, by siawi3




South Africa
Other Countries

The class character of police violence

William Shoki

Police violence and the murder of black people in the United States have provoked outrage and protest around the world, including on the continent. But, why is there so little outrage over police violence in African countries?

Oakland, USA. Image credit Thomas Hawk via Flickr CC.

Last week, the world watched the grotesque murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, a city in the American Midwest. Floyd, who, despite being compliant in his arrest, helplessly succumbed to his death after a white police-officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes despite his cries of being unable to breathe, and protests from frightened onlookers. This happens on the heels of another incident in New York, where a petty dispute between a black man and white woman over her unleashed dog in a park escalated to her calling the cops and falsely claiming that “an African-American man” was threatening her. (White people calling police on black people in the US is deemed ominous as it could result in their death.) After all this, the nature and origins of police brutality against black Americans is once again in the spotlight.

These events have rightly evoked uproar across the world, and South Africans and other Africans on the continent have joined the online chorus expressing solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis, who are leading what feels both like the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as perhaps the beginnings of a bigger uprising against the general inequalities that have characterized the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, 100,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19, and 40 million Americans have become unemployed.

It is easy, amidst all this, to forget that South Africa is experiencing its own instances of horrific violence from law enforcement agents. The most publicized of these, is the murder of Collins Khosa in the Alexandra township by members of the South African military and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department. Even after Khosa’s family successfully took them to court, the soldiers implicated have been exonerated by an internal investigation conducted by the South African National Defence Force, who were also ordered by the court to publish a set of guidelines on how to engage the public during the pandemic. Since South Africa went under a national lockdown in March to curb the virus’ spread, there has been little public anger expressed at the incidences of misconduct committed by South Africa’s security forces, who have killed more than ten people so far. In fact, a lot of people initially cheered their harsh and punitive approach as a kind of necessary evil required to contain the virus’ transmission (the indictment of 230,000 people for breaking lockdown regulations was either celebrated or ignored). Why was there little outrage over police violence at home?

It might first have something to do with the role of social media. Generally, under consumer capitalism, there exists a tendency in our media-saturated society to render all political events as media commodities, constructing a landscape where, as the social theorist Jean Baudrillard once explained, the nature of the real is preceded and determined by its mediatized representation. Society becomes predisposed to a fascination with spectacular and immediate images of violence due to their overproduction—in Baudrillard’s time it was wars in the Middle East, terrorism and football riots– in ours, it is images of police brutality. Their circulation exists first and foremost for their consumption, and rather than induce sustained action, they often trigger outbursts of anger which quickly dissipate into apathy. This moment will hopefully prove the exception.

So, that Khosa’s homicide lacks footage, effectively excludes it from the market of this attention economy, worsened as the majority of life is migrated online in the era of physical distancing. This was also the case before the pandemic with the countless other incidents of police murder in this country, which per capita, are actually three times higher than in America, a country five times our size. But America’s lasting cultural hegemony means that South Africans routinely import a distinctively American sensibility when it comes to understanding police violence at home, one with anti-black racism at its center. Yet this framework quickly reveals itself to be ill-suited to understanding the dynamics of our situation, given the fact that unlike America, we are a majority black country. And so it is almost always the case that both the perpetrators of this violence, as well as its victims, are black. It cannot simply be, as it is often decried in the United States, that our law enforcement agents are uniformed white supremacists. What else is at play here?

Consider that throughout the lockdown, the majority of the military and police’s presence are in townships and informal settlements. People were right to express surprise that the police, after years of neglect of these communities where dire social conditions increases the rate of crime and disorder, could now suddenly arrive in full force. This contradiction uncovers what many historians have previously pointed out– that the invention and subsequent function of the police as a professional body of law enforcers, is not as a response to crime, but as a response to the threat that collective action poses to elite rule and the unequal social arrangements which undergirds it. Through rebellions, strikes and other forms of resistance, masses have throughout history contested their domination and exploitation by the ruling class. It is the threat from the masses that means they need to be permanently contained, and this remains the enduring imperative of policing practices.

South Africans in informal settlements and the rural countryside are that part of the population deemed most threatening. Capitalism has made them superfluous to its present profit-making purposes, excluding them from the formal economy and condemning them to a life of mass unemployment, underemployment and indigence. The South African state was mindful of how the lockdown suspended the activity of the tenuous informal economy of which most are dependent. It does not care that the range of protections it introduced to offset worsening poverty are meager, and that it lacks the competent administration to implement them effectively (the government has only managed to successfully pay 9 people a $20 monthly COVID-19 distress grant for the unemployed, of which up to 15 million people qualify). These were never introduced in a sincere effort to sustain livelihoods, but rather to keep people subdued, with the military and police on standby just in case the masses decide that they have had enough of not having enough—as protesting miners in Marikana did in 2012. Back then, after 34 miners were massacred by the police, there were no mass, society-wide protests. That President Cyril Ramaphosa, who played a significant role in those killings, is now mostly warmly embraced by the South African public, shamefully summarizes what the legacy of Marikana has been.

The best example of this South African middle class hypocrisy, comes through one of its most cherished exports, the comedian Trevor Noah. As the host of the Daily Show, he is now being praised for his commentary about American police brutality. However, it wasn’t long ago when he described the murderous action taken by the police at Marikana as being appropriate. “Which strike has ever ended with teargas,” he joked.

A more ready identification with the victimization of black Americans then, reveals an unwillingness to confront the class character of police repression. It betrays, in other words, a veiled attachment to the prevailing social order and its continued reproduction, or at least a lack of interest in meaningfully challenging it, since the overriding concern for victims of police brutality is simply that they are black, not that they are black and poor. Black middle class South Africans feel culturally closer to African Americans (much like white South Africans imagining themselves as extensions of Europe, especially Britain, rather than “African”), and aspire to the cultural leadership and metropolitan chic that they have come to globally represent–despite the fact that this ingratiation is unrequited, and is instead usually met with indifference or cultural fetishism (see the film Black Panther), all expressive of a typically American contempt for Africans.

On the flip side, poor and working-class black South Africans, have more in common with their American counterparts– black, white or latino—than they do with the middle or upper stratas in either country. Indeed, through their shared experiences of economic oppression and state repression, they have more in common with their counterparts in Kenya or India, where police crackdowns during lockdown have not been dissimilar to those here but are underreported still, in Palestine, where Israeli Apartheid continues to harden, or even France, where it wasn’t long ago that the police violently suppressed the gilet jaunes. Nevertheless, spurred by the media visible protests emblazoning America, a cohort of Twitter personalities, NGO professionals and media commentators, are now trying to reconstruct the resistance to police brutality at home as a kind of domestic Black Lives Matter moment.

The American political scientist Adolph Reed has been foremost in critiquing the ways in which Black Lives Matter, emerging fist as a set of protests against police brutality in Ferguson in 2014, has since failed to cohere into a concrete social movement. Approaching the problem of police violence in a mostly race-reductionist way, the problem becomes that it at best can only achieve a set symbolic goals—the chanting of the slogan at gatherings, the memorialization of those killed by the police– but struggles to develop a coherent vision for social transformation. The most forceful of BLM’s proposals, came through another slogan, that to “abolish the police.” What this means in practical terms, is a range of different things, such as reimagining policing as a public good, or gradually disinvesting from it so as to dismantle it altogether. What all of these miss, however, is that so long as there is a capitalist state entrenching private property relations, there will always be some kind of security apparatus to defend it with racism coded into its logic of operation– it will prevail no matter how hard you try to reform it in order to give it a more human face, or it will simply become privatized, as is very much the case in South Africa already.

The profound explosion of rage in America—for now, knee jerk, and inchoate, will no doubt be mimicked elsewhere as restive populations reach their breaking point. It must be embraced, and channeled towards the objective of sustained organizing for a better world beyond capitalism. When the dust settles and the wreckage is before us, then the real work starts. It was Fred Hampton, the radical Black Panther who himself was first harassed by local police and then brutally assassinated by the FBI, who said, “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best, we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” We have to keep fighting, and know not only what it is we are fighting against, but also what we are fighting for.




South Africa

Abolition across the Atlantic

Paul T. Clarke

Why are South Africans not in the streets against police brutality like Americans are? It has less to do with the internet or middle classes. South Africans are captured by punitive logics. Break that.

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington DC, June 6, 2020. Image credit Geoff Livingston via Flickr CC.

On Thursday May 28th, the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) 3rd Precinct was engulfed in flames. Set ablaze by protestors enraged by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, its torching marked a new chapter in the struggle against state violence in the US. Transmitted in real-time to audiences around the globe via social media, the vision of the burning building was a clear message to those in power: if you refuse to reform the system, we will destroy it ourselves.

Given the intensity of the past two weeks, it is easy to forget that the ongoing uprisings are not simply organic outbursts, but the result of decades of organizing. The brutality of police in the United States has long provoked enduring resentment and resistance in poor and racialized communities. But until the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2013, this fury lacked national political attention. Even then, the movement struggled to translate its prominence in the discourse into durable reforms. It has remained profoundly constrained by a Democratic Party, cowed by police and prison guard unions, and stifled by a white liberal consensus that is uncomfortable with violent or even militant protest. These structural constraints have made sure that the movement for black lives has mostly only been able to extract vacuous statements of support from Democratic politicians and ineffectual reforms. The movement has not been able to ensure the conviction of killer cops—let alone deep structural changes to the criminal punishment system.

That moment, however, seems to be over. The burning of the 3rd Precinct and nation-wide protests that followed have not only forced the prosecution of Floyd’s killers, but brought the question of police abolition fully into the American mainstream for the first time. This profound, and in many ways stunning shift towards abolition comes in part because the movement has shifted its tactics. Formed originally around affirmative slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” protestors have moved firmly towards the denunciatory—“Fuck the Police,” “Fuck 12,” and “ACAB.” The latter is short for “All Cops Are Bastards.” Moreover, the clowning of opportunist and erstwhile BLM “leader” DeRay Mckesson’s policy platform, signals there is little appetite for what abolitionists call “reformist reforms”—those policies that entrench or expand the power of policing. While it is too early to know if abolition becomes the vision of the whole movement, the turn to militancy signals, at the very least, a growing abolitionist instinct.

But what is most extraordinary about the current moment is not so much the shift within the movement, but its broader acceptance outside of the movement. According to a recent Monmouth Poll, 54% of Americans believe the protest, including the burning of the 3rd Precinct, was at least partially justified. In Minneapolis, the school board and the University of Minnesota cut ties with the police department before the city council committed to disbanding the MPD Monday. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti committed to cutting up to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget to be redirected to jobs, health initiatives, and “peace centers.” Under the white-hot pressure of the moment, municipalities across the country are considering similar steps.

One should be careful to note these actions, though welcome, do not add up to abolition. Abolition is a far more capacious project that requires not only the end of institutions like the police and prisons, and of the systems that undergird and require them, but their replacement with relations of mutual care and accountability. Moreover, it remains to be seen if this incipient progress will be stymied by a spineless Democratic Party or crushed by a fascist Republican Party. Let us hope that it is not. The escalating health, economic, and political catastrophes are plunging the US into a full-blown crisis of legitimation. Without an ideological fig leaf to cover its predation, the ruling class will rely ever more heavily on the police to maintain the line between themselves and the masses. Seen from this vantage, abolition looks very much like the last best hope, not only for left politics, but for American democracy itself.

Compared to South Africa, that fellow settler colony on the other end of the Atlantic, the contrast could not be starker, as William Shoki points out in his excellent recent piece. While the country’s security forces have killed at least 12 people since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, there is little outrage over police violence in South Africa. This is shocking, not only because South African police kill three times as many people per capita than their American counterparts, but also because South Africa, unlike the US, has a rich history of broad militancy against the police and security forces. Why then are South Africans not also in the streets?

Shoki offers two answers: one proximate—that recent police violence in South Africa was not captured on video and therefore could not become a media spectacle—and one ultimate—that South Africans, particularly those in the middle class, approach police violence with a distinctly American perspective that emphasizes its racial character and obscures its class character. These are compelling, but I believe only partial answers.

Let’s begin with the first. It is undoubtedly the case that the capture and circulation of the murder of George Floyd played an important, inciting role. But images themselves, however grotesque the content may be, are not sufficient to provoke an uprising. It has taken decades of organizing and movement-building not only to get people in the streets, but to structure the public’s very affective reactions to police violence. As philosopher Judith Butler observed about the Rodney King trial, the ideological construction of criminality weighed so heavily on the minds of white jurors while watching the footage, instead of seeing King being savagely beaten by the cops, they saw King as the source of danger. Rolling back that subjectification takes work, work that is clearly not being done in South Africa. After all, it is simply not the case that South Africans do not have widely-circulated images of police violence. Quite the contrary, as I have written previously, police departments have taken to posting images of “criminals” on Twitter who they themselves have shot dead. South Africa does not lack for spectacles of police violence; it lacks a civic culture that questions who becomes “a criminal” and under what conditions.

This brings me to Shoki’s second point on class and American cultural hegemony in South Africa. It is without question that a race-reductionist analysis of police violence allows some in the black middle and upper classes to, by curious alchemy, turn the suffering of black Americans into self-promotion. Look no further than South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new “Black Friday anti-racism” campaign for corroboration. But in making this critique, we should not lose track of the ideological diversity within the US struggle against state violence. Specifically, it is important to remember that abolition as a tradition emerges not from BLM, but from the work of black socialist women like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Beth Richie. And while there may be some misguided souls that think that abolition, as Shoki writes, means “reimagining policing as a public good,” there is no self-respecting abolitionist who would agree. Those at the core of the tradition have always been forthrightly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Wilson Gilmore puts it plainly: “Abolition has to be green (environmentalist), and in order to be green, it has to be red (anti-capitalist), and in order to be red, it has to be international.”

Given the superficiality of Twitter, it is not surprising that middle class South Africans have taken up the American struggle in its most sanitized form. This speaks less to American culture hegemony per se than how South Africans’ imaginations—middle and working class alike—have long been so thoroughly captured by punitive logics. When I called for consideration of prison and police abolition in South Africa in September, it was mostly out of despair. At the time, the discourse around policing was dominated by ultra-reactionaries who believe that the police in the country are not violent enough, think-tankers who lauded Police Minister Bheki Cele’s “maximum crackdown,” and liberal NGOs, who fight against sexual violence in prisons with terrifyingly inhumane slogans like “rape is not part of the penalty.” The fact that there is now a sense that the country has a problem with police violence is reason for cautious optimism.

Those interested in cultivating this sensibility into a movement could do worse than abolition. It is natural for those unfamiliar with it to be skeptical of it, but those on the left will recognize themselves in abolition. In many ways, abolitionists put Mao’s maxim—“from the masses, to the masses”—in practice better than anyone else in the US. Drawing on the rage of poor people and black people as an archive, abolitionists have transformed it into a vision of the future, and worked to bring it into being. The rage in the streets today is not knee-jerk or inchoate; abolitionists have helped nurture it into an uprising. Let’s hope it wins and crosses the Atlantic soon.