By LaCharles Ward | @LaCharles88 | with thanks to to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
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
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
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.