RECAP: “Displays of Force: Black Rebellion & the Spectacular Violence of Police,” March 17 Colloquium w/ Smith College Prof. Erin Pineda

“The whole world is watching,” chanted by anti-Vietnam War protestors outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 as they were beaten and arrested by Chicago police, was then—and remains today—an utterance rich with political possibility. What, exactly, this possibility is, Smith College Phyllis C. Rappaport ’68 New Century Term Professor of Government Erin Pineda showed in opening her March 17 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, is contained in the framework of a non-violent sublime that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. constructs in Why We Can’t Wait. For King, the confrontation between non-violent protestors and spectacularly violent police forces had the capacity to expose the grizzly, deadly nature of white supremacist Jim Crow rule not as aberrational but instead as quite routine. Moreover, the spectator’s act of confronting a violence that was typically rendered invisible or willfully ignored could, he reasoned, be transformational. In the spectacle, white onlookers would see the status quo for what it was: a demand that Black citizens accept a perversion of rule of law, normalized under the subheading of democracy. These onlookers would be left vulnerable by this realization, forced to think newly about what was unfolding before their eyes and, at least in theory, they would in turn re-orient how they understood themselves in relation to the ongoing, un-democratic structures of domination that were in place.

King quickly became disabused of the belief that non-violence would awaken shame in the white witness to it. Few took up the invitation to be transformed by the confrontation between protestors and police, and to say that those who did were ‘transformed’ would be an overstatement. As Prof. Pineda explained, beyond conceding to share public and consumer spaces—buses and lunch counters—white citizens balked at severing pleasurable attachment to the systems through which they enjoyed domination and in which exploitation was embedded: housing markets and policies, union jobs, schools. “White America,” King observed, “is not even psychologically organized to close the gap.”

Returning to the idea of ‘witnessing,’ as explored in Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle, Prof. Pineda noted how, for some onlookers, the spectacle of brutality can achieve an effect opposite to what King envisioned. In the case of Wood’s work, witnessing the public act of lynching coerced unity among white Southerners, becoming a generative experience that codified the white body politic around anti-Black violence in such a way that affirmed white supremacist social and political meaning. Murder could thus be re-framed in the Southern white consciousness as an act of protecting a democratic, law abiding, vulnerable populous against a sexually violent Black menace. As Wood shows, though, these generative acts of witness were also repurposed by anti-lynching activists whose own acts of bearing witness to media reproductions of the abhorrent moral barbarism taking place in the South spurred expressions of reproach and outrage. In our current reality, where video footage of violence done to the Black body circulates with unspeakable frequency, these distinct acts of witnessing and bearing witness happen simultaneously, within the same space. And while we should never foreclose on the transformative potential of bearing witness, Prof. Pineda underscored that we should likewise remain vigilantly aware of the alternative affective responses that witnessing evokes, responses that, as was true in the 19th and 20th centuries, are so often fed through and ultimately buttress the logic of white supremacy.

When video footage of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police was made public in 1992, the immediate mainstream response was one of shock and fury at an egregious display of racist force. The footage leant objectivity to charges of police brutality, compelling even to those who had previously rejected such brutality as possible. However, as the case went to trial, and as the video was repeatedly consumed within a visual field schematized around racism, a reversal took place in which the act of reading what evidence wasn’t there—what happened before the beating—drew into the discourse entrenched ideas about Black aggression and criminalization. Specifically, by crafting a narrative in which King had inevitably posed a threat to the police officers present, white audiences began to identify with the police and the white citizens they protect from the imminent violence of Blackness. The threat to the officers’ bodily autonomy was metonymically read as a threat to the body politic, thereby precluding the possibility of interpreting police violence as violence. 22 years later in Ferguson, Missouri, Darren Wilson recycled this corrosive rhetoric to similar effect. As he described an unarmed Michael Brown as staring at him with demonic intensity, as he testified to the mortal danger he remained in even as he shot Brown—who supernaturally strengthened through the bullets, who left Wilson “like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan”—white witnesses identified his own performed vulnerability as their own.

Reversal can take other forms. In 2020, for example, the affective responses to protest multiplied as officials from Trump to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz raised the specter of out-of-town agitators—white anarchists, anti-capitalists, domestic terrorists—infiltrating the peaceful demonstrations happening across the U.S. Suddenly, two interpretive pathways were available to white witnesses at once. They could acknowledge the non-violent protests as legitimate, the demands of protesters as viable, while at the same time legitimizing police violence against an illegible criminal presence within the protests as a mode of stabilization that had to occur before the work of redress could properly begin. That work of redress, within this schema, becomes endlessly, ambivalently deferred by the act of accommodating oneself to troubling violence that is no less necessary in being troubling.

Coupled with reversal as an affective response that runs deeply counter to the transformative possibility of the sublime contestation between violence and non-violence is affirmation. The sheer volume of displays of Black male suffering, and the interpretive chains imposed on these videos, has produced a perversely voyeuristic audience that expects and feels entitled to these displays. As was the case with the killing of Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, the audience’s expectation of violence can quickly take the shape of a desire to witness it and, with this, a conception of the violence itself as desirable. And, as Prof. Pineda argued in closing, this delight in watching police display violent force needn’t remain vicarious. As seen in Kenosha, WI, in Summer 2020, gun populism in particular has given rise to a deputized, embodied practice of witnessing in which private citizens join police in a racialized coalition of legitimate bearers of forms of violence so often crudely defined as self-defensive.

The revolutionary potential of collective action is still central to any hope for redress, Prof. Pineda concluded, and if the spectacle of a violence that’s constitutive of the world as it is can ever achieve the goal of disavowal, it will require firming our commitment to making the spectacular transformative rather than regressive. To put it modestly, though, the task is tall, as the very same conditions that render rebellion necessary are what make the performance of non-violence so fragile.