Yesterday marked a national moment of silence for the police violence that continues to ravage primarily communities of color in the United States. In the wake of the undue force that cut short the lives of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and countless more #Ferguson has become a quilting point for ongoing frustration, sadness, and rage about the structural racism that continues to render some bodies less worth grieving for than others. Moreover, in the past few weeks, citizen protests (again rebutted by undue force and a militarized police presence) have also activated public discussions about how black bodies are represented (on a level of aesthetic form, grainy photographs, “gangster” or colloquial poses) and how long such tragedies last in (dominant) public consciousness.
In most of these discussions what comes to the fore is the extreme vulnerability and the simultaneous hypervisiblity of male black bodies as threat and invisibility in the wake of tragedy. This dialectic between the visible and invisible is not new. Dominant media, which grows from deeply engrained social norms and beliefs, has also differentially represented or ignored marginalized populations. However, what #ferguson has thrown into relief is the continued importance of image making (through collective protest) and image sharing to cultivate threads of solidarity, and what these images produce is affective in nature: empathy, anger, frustration, and intense grief.
Yesterday’s #NMOS14 offered a distributed network of virtual and physical co-presence to citizens wishing to bear witness to ongoing state violence, and also a pedagogical scene to teach non-black citizens about what structural vulnerability and visibility/invisibility means.
In Pittsburgh, this gathering took place on Grant Street in front of the local courthouse. This section of the downtown is marked by classical architecture, white columns, and a kind of smoothness and solemnity that stands in stark contrast to the quirky neighborhoods, uneven hills, narrow row houses, and inventive and very visibly uneven building practices in many other Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The downtown, which used to be a residential neighborhood for a large African American population, after two waves of urban renewal (read here destruction and rebuilding) has been refigured into a largely diurnal space for state practices, commercial vending, sports spectatorship and theater outings, rather than a 24 hour mixed use realm. Although the city has supported initiatives to (economically) diversify the down town, it continues to be an uneasy area for racial mixing en route to more segregated neighborhoods. To see then a crowd of around 125 individuals of varying ages and races, was unique, a fact that one of the speakers remarked upon.
Many protesters held small votive candles, watching speakers intently, who spoke about other instances of police harassment, the undue surveillance and implicit bias that black bodies receive in public spaces, and grief. It was hard to hear many of the speakers.
The outdoor nature of the space, and its proximity to a large road, meant that the rush of cars and vans drowned out. There was a single microphone and no speakers as would exist at a state press event or something of that ilk.
Young boys word handmade signs around their necks, with hand prints and the text “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Their frail bodies underscored the ultimate vulnerability that black youth undergo in police states. Importantly, a young African-American man mentioned the diversity of the audience but also reminded the group that people from largely black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh were not at the protest because they did not feel welcome or connected with a middle class and caucasian activist population that they do not regularly see in their neighborhoods. He spoke of the norms of averting one’s eyes from black men in public spaces, how in any other context, he or his father would still be seen as de facto threat. Another speaker pointed out the obligation that white citizens, or people read as white, have to challenge racist talk as it occurs, “We all have that racist uncle,” she reflected, “and we have to undo racism from within white culture.”
Near 8:00, the time at which the protest permit was up, the organizer asked the group to stand together, raise their hands and repeat: “Hands up, Don’t shoot!” This phrase, what used to be a simple matter of policy with regards to police training, has taken on new meanings as a demand, a chastisement, and an exhibition of how any bodies can become bodies at risk. Holding up my hands in the group I was aware that my chest and vital organs were bared, that we were suspended and visible. This simple enactment of embodied solidarity and vulnerability offered a (temporary) moment of shared grief and frustration, a way to translate powerful but often circular virtual pronouncements into a shared physical space of communion.
Sadly, the Pittsburgh police stood on the other side of the street, on bicycles, seemingly unconcerned. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” enactment was (possibly deliberately but also as a matter of happenstance) in their direction, and indeed, the hope is that when public performances of dissent take place, codes of dignity and the value of all human life is sustained. The aspiration is that, yet again, “Hands up,” really means “don’t shoot.”
These national spectacles of public grief and anger serve a critical purpose. They allow for citizens, across differences, to come together to share sadness. They make spaces that might otherwise be privatized realms of neoliberal transfer to be spaces for encounters that also draw connections, as the young man noted, to other spaces that might not be viewed as viable public spaces. They perform the demand that all lives be made grievable. The next step, however, is not to stop at evental protests. It is the cultivate attention, respect, and interest in the bodies that surround us. It is to instill awareness and criticality in viewing interactions between citizens and state authorities, as one of the speakers pointed out in her account of police harassment. It is to continue to share space with people across differences, and to make good on the promise that all folks deserve to dwell in public space.