Police Violence

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, Tate Modern London

‘The ghetto itself is the gallery.’

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Culture Minister

Before seeing this exhibition, based on the name alone, I was expecting a show turned up to peak volume; not that there is a problem with this, as someone who adores noise, the blacker the better, but wondered if it might operate on the level of radical pastiche.

None of this was a judgment of the curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whiteley who have assembled 150 works from 1963-1983 by black American artists or the museum, but more an expression of personal confusion or alienation now that transgressive art, culture and ideas from the past are routinely transformed into commodities to be sold.

As I soon discovered, though, this often delicate and complex show was light years away from such mind-static. Introspection, restraint and a deep thoughtfulness pervaded much of the art – and its presentation - allowing us to take time to reflect and feel something of how it might have been to be alive then.

‘H20gate Blues’ Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson  (Winter in America, Strata-East Records, 1974)

Certain artworks, such as ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) by David Hammons worked on the level of the gut –

the artwork depicts Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gagged and shackled at his 1969 trial after the judge ordered he be chained to his chair following a series of interjections. He was being tried as one of the ‘Chicago Eight’ on charges for conspiracy to cross state lines, according to the history.com site, ‘to cause a riot during the violent anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention’. He was later tried alone for contempt charges and received a four-year sentence.

Here, Hammons printed his own body, objectifying it, transforming it into an surface, he 'coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor’ – this is taken from Apsara DiQuizio's article, ‘David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body’. 

Because of its life-size dimensions, the essential savagery of what it depicts – chaining up a man as if he were a dog at his own trial - and the genius of the presentation/idea, this work is deeply affecting. Resembling an X-ray in an airport, the image transforms Seale into little more than a squashed/flattened body/bones in his fingers, while forcing us into the role of those conducting the surveillance. An older white man standing in front of me, shook his head when reading the description for the artwork and swore under his breath.        

There’s a lot to write about in terms of this exhibition, I kept writing notes and taking photographs of the descriptions of the works, as I was struck repeatedly by the fragments and splinters of ideas, often formulated as questions, see this from the brochure: ‘Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?’

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Black Light

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Man in window, New York, 1978 

 

'... the self as a secret entity, as a secret, hidden place.'

Note beside an artwork by Martin Puryear, 'Self' with regard to his sculpture (1978) 

One of the rooms seemed darker than the others and held a series of fragile and extremely beautiful installations by Betye Saar from the early 70s that drew on time spent in Haiti, entering the room was like going into a crypt ... On the walls, there were finely-constructed collages, often held in wooden boxes, filled with very small objects. There was something deeply private and intimate about this art that moved me.

The act of collecting and putting these objects together was a recurring theme in the exhibition; for example, the room called ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ that included this commentary:

Los Angeles was a city experiencing great racial tension in 1962, police had entered a mosque and shot an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam. Two years later, another instance of police violence in a predominantly African American neighbourhood triggered the Watts Rebellion, which left 34 dead and properties and shops in ruins.

The artists featured in this room - Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar - ‘created art by recycling and bringing together objects in different formations, known as assemblage’.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘Lynch Fragments’ series by Melvin Edwards, a project he started in 1963. The aggressive-looking steel objects, made up from refuse found on the streets of LA completely reversed expectations of how to represent race-based violence; here there is no victim – and no audience – but an object of torture, made from scrap metal.

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) Some Bright Morning, Lynch Fragments 1963

Christopher Knight writing in a Los Angeles Times review of a show marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising quoted Purifoy as saying the following regarding the Watts Towers that he said was 'arguably America's greatest modern folk-art masterpiece.'

What if these people could look at junk another way — as a symbol of their being in the world, their being just in relationship to something.

Knight then concluded with these sentences: 'Their being in the world — battered and discarded, like the broken glass and pottery of the soaring towers but also reassembled and reborn into something beautiful, mysterious and profound.'

mysteries.jpg

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mysteries, 1964 

Thoughts on terrorism and campaigns against police violence

Unsurprisingly the most persistent question following the series of terrorist attacks in France that killed 234 people over an 18-month period up until the Bastille Day assault in Nice last year, has been, ‘Why France?’ All kinds of answers have been put forward, most often with the answer given reflecting the political perspective of the person responding.

Social oppression, racism; the country’s policy of secularism (that banned the veil and all forms of religious identification in public schools), the country’s colonial past that continues to inform, or infect, policy in former colonies in West Africa, where France is fighting Islamist forces; its involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria.

Problem with this, though, is that the above suggests that there is a logically coherent argument motivating the mostly European-born jihadists committing these crimes. Knowledge of the men’s chaotic personal lives, shifting allegiances, and often sudden conversion to the cause undermines this premise. Family ties, for example having a close family member already involved in the jihad, alongside a criminal background seem to matter more. European-based jihadist groups closely resemble gangs, where men often with a history of crime or violence are recruited to the cause that is put forward as a path to salvation and renewal.  

Still, the question remains: why France? Those organising the attacks appear to believe that France (out of all the European countries) is vulnerable to the chaos it wants to unleash through its campaign of terror; the idea being that the country’s three million Muslims might be potential recruits, if/when the French State enacts repressive policies against them, and that the country is weak because of its sentimental self-image as the bastion of human rights.

Of interest, here, is the way the jihadists chose their target based on its perceived weaknesses. This is basic psychology writ large: the conman targets the vulnerable person based on how they think that person will react, while twisting the victim’s sense of a positive self-identity (the opportunist says that he loves a woman’s ‘sweet nature’ to get her to give him more, complimenting her and flattering her ego to exploit her).

Yesterday, a white police officer – Betty Shelby – was acquitted of a manslaughter charge of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher who was shot when standing with his hands above his head in Oklahoma last September. The reactions as you would expect were furious, often focussing on the fact that the officer was a ‘white woman’. But despite all the political actions, the street marches and opinion pieces written, this is just another case where a police officer has avoided jail time (or avoided being charged, or having a case brought against them).

From an outsider’s perspective, despite all the activity – and media coverage – little seems to be changing in the US regarding police violence. There are strong community-based campaigns, calling for police to wear body cameras, for the institution of accountable civilian reviews and independent police liability insurance (see this national campaign that started in Minneapolis, Insure the Police), but people are still getting shot and police officers allowed to go free, or not even be charged.

Without sounding too extreme, I wonder, though if it might be time to think like the organisers of the European-based terrorist campaigns, not in terms of using violence, of course, but focussing more on the weaknesses/motivators of white racism that allows the cycle of police violence in the United States to continue unchecked.

For starters, to think of campaigns that could upset the dominant desire of the majority population to have a positive self-image (see the way various forms of historic forms of race-based oppression, most obvious in colonial/post-colonial contexts sought the veneer of respectability and benevolence, as they would say in Australia, the policies of protection and assimilation were ‘for their own good’). And secondly, to start thinking about money.

Could boycotts, for example, be enacted that targeted cities with high-levels of police violence – allowing for some protections, or financial support for citizens living there who might be affected? Might international campaigns be set up to ‘shame’ cities in the United States - including a ban on tourism, just like the divestment campaigns against South Africa - until they guarantee basic levels of safety to the people living there?

Everything in politics comes back to financial interests; that’s all that matters. Groups are heard because they have financial interests that intersect with those who govern. For this reason, the current activism against police violence, with its emphasis on educating the wider community and peaceful marches, seems to be too reactive – and just a little too nice.

It is true that the police officers could be motivated by racism or commit these crimes because of poor training, but it’s more than likely that they are killing people because they know that there will be no significant consequences, personal/professional … or financial. As any journalist knows, you have got to follow the money: I wonder how things might change, if a similar kind of logic was applied to the activism trying to stop police violence; to cut off the income - so to speak - that allows the current status quo to continue as is, unimpeded.  

New section on the site: Interviews & Essays

Some of you might have noticed the recent addition of a new section in the menu to the left - Interviews & Essays - well, the logic behind this is to collect my longer pieces of writing in one place. Writing on hip-hop; such as my first extended interview/essay on Detroit producer/MC Black Milk from 2015 and that of New York-based producer, Marco Polo ... or my conversation with MC Sha Rock, the first female MC in hip-hop culture.  

Also, you'll find essays on 90s instrumentals and Mick Jenkins' track, 'Fall through' from his 2016 record, The Healing Component - and my interview with BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk and Rodrigo Brandão) published in Ambrosia for Heads last year. Apart from the hip-hop related content, there are essays on French politics and police violence in the US and Paris and electro/DnB musicians from the UK.

Over time, I'll keep adding to this section, including pieces from the past and those to come. My hope is that those of you who are interested in reading the longer pieces, and there's quite a few out there it seems, will try out the various subjects and take a chance on something new. Mixing it up ...

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago.