What is lynching? In its prevalent forms in American history, it appears as the administration of racial formations through terror. The mutilation, shaming and degrading of black bodies, and also the corpses being retrieved and displayed as trophies, was intended to maintain the symbolic subjection of black people to, in bell hooks’ formulation, “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. I stress the symbolic as a material element in racial oppression, because the problem of etiquette, of racial manners, was invariably central to such violence. Night-riders and lynch mobs were the enforcers of this etiquette. We know it’s a peculiar problem in Jim Crow, the thousand and one rules and codes that crowded the field of sociality, exchange, transport, production and so on.
As Howard Winant explains, black people were expected to “remove their hats in the presence of whites, to step off the sidewalk (where one existed) into the muddy street at the passage of a white, and to wait in such shops as would serve blacks until all whites had been served, no matter who had arrived first”. One finds this everywhere. Not just in the segregated public accomodations, but in the sites of production, the factories, the textile mills, where black labour was menial and expected to be deferential. If there is a white woman walking down a corridor, you step out of it until she passes. You don’t speak to a white person unless they address you. If you need the toilet, you walk out of the building and several hundred yards to the facility marked “colored”. So much, we all know. And what does it tell us about the social order? The South’s theologians, ideologists and apologists hailed the region as a sort of classical, Athenian structure, a gentle, stable and aristocratic community. Yet the first infringement of one of the region’s rituals could result in an explosion of violence, as if the antagonisms pervading the whole formation were suddenly displaced onto one symbolic crux.
But this doesn’t capture the whole problem. For the organization of political violence in American history is unusual in some respects, in that the whole history of countersubversive (anti-radical, anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-black) violence is one in which the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence is deputised to sections of the citizenry. The invocation of the ‘right to bear arms’ has almost always been made in this sort of context, as during the trials of Klansmen in the Reconstruction period. And it is in this sort of area of political violence, where citizens were de facto deputised by states according to illicit hierarchies and instructions, whether it was Klan, minute men, FBI mobs, or Pinkertons, that parapolitics has a peculiar role in American history and politics. Occasionally, the logic has been subverted, as when Black Panthers invoked this right to defend themselves against police criminality – one of the few such invocations of the ‘right to bear arms’ where the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of force has genuinely been challenged. But this violence was precisely not legitimized, whereas lynchings, employer violence, the ‘disappearing’ of militants, and so on, often has been legitimized. In the shift from Jim Crow to the penal administration of race, which required that the black criminality be identified through increasingly sophisticated classifications, codes and statutes, the ‘right to bear arms’ has most often been raised in the context of white self-defence. Citizens have often been allowed to wield punitive or capital violence when certain social norms or classifications were tested and defied; their violence has been legitimized because at the very least they have not been sanctioned.
But there is one other facet of this, which is the spatial re-ordering of American cities and towns. The racial aspect of this is familiar enough that I don’t need to rehearse it here: the construction of ‘the ghetto’, ‘white flight’, the displacement of segregation from county to neighbourhood level. But of course this spatial re-organization is also way of structuring class power, as well as of preserving certain (patriarchal, conservative) social forms. The emergence of ‘private towns’ signals another twist in the delegation of state power sanctioned by the doctrine of property rights. In a previous post, I mentioned ’Leisure World’ of Arizona, where constitutional protections are seemingly suspended, where the board of directors censors published material at will, precisely as one might in one’s own household, or one’s own company. In these zones, Mexicans and other people of colour may work, but in total silence. If they say anything to the whites who live there, they’re out. The so-called ‘gated community’ is a related phenomenon, not quite as extreme in the internal controls available to its owners, but obviously protected with civilian violence – security guards, neighbourhood watch, armed citizen vigilantes, all do their share. It is in the context of territorial property rights, concerning households especially, but certainly gated communities and private towns, that stand-your-ground laws allowing for killing in ‘self-defence’ have been most available to legitimize this kind of violence.
Trayvon Martin was murdered while walking through a gated community in Miami known as Twin Lakes. His killer, George Zimmerman, has not been arrested. In fact, judging fromwitness statements, the police have taken quite extraordinary steps to avoid arresting him. Zimmerman had a long-standing relationship with local police, inasmuch as he was constantly in contact with them to report disturbances, suspicious sightings, windows left open and so on. It seems likely that they knew who he was, and what a vigilant citizen he was. Indeed, it seems probable that they shared many of his concerns, as their officers were known to have worries about black vagrancy and criminality. Neighbourhood Watch knew Zimmerman well, knew that he was always alert to the possibility of young black men who may be outsiders coming into the gated community. The security guards who defend local properties have displayed similar concerns, in one case shooting a black man while he was in his vehicle. They cited self-defence, claiming that he was driving toward them and about to run them over, although autopsy reports show that he was shot in the back. The judge threw out the case for lack of evidence. Of course, we have abundant examples, of which the execution of Troy Davis is just one, of just how racialised the question of evidence is.
But the point to make here is that while Zimmerman acted alone, he did not act in isolation, at odds with the expectations of police, or with the social norms current in the gated community. He saw a young black man walking around the gated community. To him, as to any officer, or security guard, or citizen vigilante, this was ‘suspicious’. His presence was not in keeping with racial etiquette. His behaviour, walking slowly and looking at the houses of the well-off in the rain, suggested a deranged, drugged mind – because it is not done. Not in this neighbourhood, not in this community, and not in this town. Zimmerman acted expeditiously to suppress this symbolic infringement. Perhaps he spoke to Trayvon Martin, perhaps he challenged him about his behaviour, queried his motive for being there, instructed him to move along with more haste. But, whether because cooperation was not forthcoming, or because it was too late for the infringement to be remedied, he resolved the problem finally by putting an end to Martin’s life, blasting his chest open.
Geraldo Rivera thinks the murder happened because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, and thus sending out a signal that he was a gangster. However morally cretinous this suggestion is, give Rivera credit for having some intuition about the politics of racial symbolism. He means that the murder victim is partly to blame for his death, because this symbolic action, wearing a hoodie, identifies one as someone who should be killed. He cannot help partially sharing the point of view of the killer, understanding the anxiety and horror that such sassing, such brazen boldness, such reckless wearing, walking and looking, provokes. He partially shares the point of view of the killer and that’s why gets it: hey, if you don’t want to get shot, don’t go out looking like a punk. If you don’t want to get shot, don’t loiter, stand up straight, dress properly, show some manners. For there are points in the administration of America’s increasingly jittery racial class system, where it seems that everything rides on this symbolic order and its maintenance.
- Action Today: Trayvon Martin Murder Anniversary
- POCO Podcast: Ajamu Baraka on Trayvon Martin, Race, Class and Movements
- POCO Podcast: From the Blockade of the Sanford, Florida Police Department
- Oakland: Self-Respect and Community Self-Defense Forum
- From Trayvon Martin to Wall Street: Racist Violence is Used to Maintain an Unjust Social Order