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By LaCharles Ward | @LaCharles88with thanks to to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015.

 

 

The violent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford in Ohio, Aiyana Jones in Detroit, and Tamir Rice also in Ohio and countless others, all at the hands of White police officers, has reignited conversations regarding race and gender, the hypermilitarization of police, and more importantly, the value of Black life in the United States. These horrific acts of deadly violence sadly represent, again and again, the precarious nature of Blackness and its relationship to the police in the United States.

 

Photographs of the protests in Ferguson and St. Louis, MO bombarded us. The images that circulated illuminated the power of photographs, especially in their ability to solicit affective and physical reactions. Certainly, one such image, which will be the focus here, captured in a frame, the state of Black life in the United States. This is the photo of 3-year-old Nigel Jones-Mack standing in an almost innocent-like manner looking as the marchers and police inched toward him. It almost brought me to my knees. Some have already hailed this as an “iconic” photo that will define the Ferguson protests (1). In fact, the image reminded me of the iconic Tiananmen Square photograph, though different, because it visually indexes the people in ways, I think, that Tiananmen did not.

 

However, bracketing questions and debates about iconicity, I want to suggest that this photograph beckons us to see and grapple with effects of a dangerously racist police state and the continued disregard for the Black body.  

 

The photo, literally and figuratively, forces us to see through the lens of race. That is to say, drawing on W. J. T. Mitchell, Nigel’s looking as a raced Black body serves as a lens or, as a medium, for understanding the lived realities of Black folk across the United States who look like me, Renisha McBride, or Nigel (2). Specifically, we might think of Nigel’s looking as being an ocular vehicle for which to make sense of ways in which, on a quotidian level, Black bodies are not only victims of the deleterious effects of black criminalization but, more importantly, victims of physical and horrific deaths at the hands of, to echo Africana Studies professor, C. Riley Snorton, the State and its apparatuses (i.e., the police) (3).

 

For example, we might say that Nigel’s short distance (a few blocks) from the police car figuratively and visually represents the structural conditions that have historically constructed Black bodies, especially Black men, as on the run from the Police and/or always in relation to the law. Or, we might say that Nigel’s body position and his looking can be interpreted as a moment of interpellation.

 

The moment where he realizes his location within a racist Police state. Alternatively, we might say that Nigel is innocently-thought as we know, Black bodies are often rendered illegible to innocence—standing in the middle of the streets unaware of the lethal danger that is approaching him, as indicative of the approaching police squad car. Whatever interpretation you/we choose, what is important is that, at some level, young Nigel—a kid with a future and the embodiment of potentiality—is becoming aware of the ways in which society perceives him or, at the very least, perceives people who look like him.

 

Nigel is more than an icon and more than just a kid who stands in a liminal space of innocence due to his blackness; but, whether he knows it or not, his corporeal presence and visual positioning in the photograph serves as a heuristic for understanding the fragility of Black lives in America (4).

 

The presence of the police car as it precedes the large crowd of marchers is also visually striking for several reasons. On an uncritical level, we might see the somewhat normal routine of a police squad car “protecting” the peaceful protesters as they march through the downtown streets of St. Louis, MO. It is not uncommon to see police walking, riding ahead of, or sometimes walking behind a large crowd of people who are in public spaces engaging in dissent. Certainly, depending on the situation and the people protesting, one might desire police presence. This is not and, well, is nothing new.

 

However, on a more critical level, there are several ways in which we can read the presence of the police squad car with its flashing lights. First and foremost, particularly if you are person of color, you might view the squad car as creating an illusion of protection and, quite frankly, as a damn joke, especially considering the circumstances in Ferguson, New York, Ohio and many other geo-spatial locations that are stratified along race and class lines. As such, the police are not really there to protect (despite the deceptive nature of the flashing blue/red lights) the mostly Black crowd rather they are there to contain the crowd in a specified route as to prevent the crowd from causing disruption to the everyday lives of other residents (read: White folk) of St. Louis (i.e., major highway).

 

I would also suggest that the presence of the police squad car in this image represents, as Carolyn Davis observes in her essay in The Feminist Wire, “the predominantly White police force” that we saw “dressed for combat and armed to the teeth, facing off against predominantly black citizens and protesters” in Ferguson (5). In that moment, though long before it, there is sense that police are not (and, I would say, never were) invested in the protection of Black citizens. Lest we think otherwise, we need only look at the video that captures one White officer yelling, “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!” at the protesters. Or, read for example, The Condemnation of Blackness (2011) by Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

 

According to professor and TV host, Melissa Harris-Perry, from 2006 to 2012, a Black person lost their life to the Police twice a week in the United States (6). Put differently, a study done by ProPublica, note that Black men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young White men (7). Thus, the presence of the police squad car is remarkable in that it represents how in theory, the police are charged with protecting citizens, including Black citizens, yet, in practice, they dispose of Black bodies as if they are valueless. I find the work by Alexander Weheliye particularly instructive in illuminating this contradiction when he writes, “suffering becomes the defining feature of those subjects excluded from the law, the national community, humanity, and so on due to the political violence inflicted upon them even as it, paradoxically, grants them access to inclusion and equality” (8).

 

This treatment of Black bodies, then, represents what social theorist, Henry Giroux, calls a biopolitics of disposability where people of color are not only rendered utterly invisible but left to “fend for themselves” against state-sanctioned violence because the state has failed to protect (9). In other words, the collision between “law and death,” (10) has been so catastrophic that to say Black bodies are “collateral damage” would be inaccurate. Semantically, “collateral damage” would imply that Black bodies were incidental to the intended target; however, as we know, they are the very targets of law and death—of a hypermilitarized force that is bequeathed power by the State—to physically let live or let die.

 

More explicitly, as a whole, this photograph, as one person mentioned in a comment, captures a beautiful young child “with his whole life ahead of him, but with the police car heading toward him” we can feel the weight “of injustice bearing down on him” (10). Yet, at the same time, this photograph also represents, a community who are beyond fed up with the constant disregard for Black bodies, as indicated by the marching protesters, who we might read as marching to protect the innocence and value of young Nigel’s life.

 

At a mundane level, historical witnessing is happening by Nigel. Though he appears to be standing alone, he is not. Nigel, along with other Black men and women around the world, are standing at the crossroads of life or death, and we can only hope that it is the former. As spectators, we, too, are at a crossroads. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can all just pause to see what Nigel is seeing and grapple with what he is revealing about the precarity (11) of Black lives. Let’s stand and continue to stand with Nigel.

 

***

 

LaCharles Ward  is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. Broadly, his research interests lie at the junctures of critical theories of race and racism and visual culture studies. He is currently working on several, though interconnected projects, which considers how Black bodies are rendered de minimis and unworthy of life via media, legal, and state institutions.

 

At the Visual Crossroads: Blackness and the Matter of Life or Death

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