The Necropolitics of Breath in a Policing State

Philip Olayoku's picture

The sombre mood within the globe, following measures to curtail the further spread of the deadly new coronavirus codenamed COVID-19, was interrupted by the enduring menace of police brutality; again stirring the world’s consciousness to the challenge of social inequality even if everyone remained vulnerable to infection by the virus. This period of the world’s healing process would thus be incomplete without revisiting the enduring question of police violence and its attendant targeted fatalities with waves of #Blacklivesmatter protests spiralling across different continents. This question ultimately intertwines with the practice of governance and securitization, which this discourse seeks to engage by exploring the relevant concepts of state violence, race, power asymmetry, privilege, structural violence/deprivation and security, as well as their intersections. An attempt, if successful, that seeks to stimulate further reflections on the relations between the state and its citizens.

Scott (2016) discussed the concept of state violence as traversing the physical, psychological and structural, as it could be deployed through the military for territorial integrity or conquest or against citizens through law enforcement agents. He further highlighted the thin line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of state violence though maintaining that not all forms of state violence are encapsulated under the purview of national treatises and international law. This lacuna of coverage, as it were, gives a leeway for the justification of certain criminal acts as legitimate. Following the Weberian position that the state often lays claim to the monopoly of violence by retaining the right to determine its (violence) legal status, Sim (2010) extrapolated three mutually reinforcing narratives of state violence to include: portrayal of victims as dangerous morally and psychologically derailed individuals, depiction of police perpetrators as outliers of a courteous professional lot, and finally the exaggerated emphasis on violence against state agents which is used to legitimize their disproportionate use of force as self-defence. These narratives usually set the agenda for managing illegitimate use of violence by state agents who, more often than not, get exonerated by judicial and political authorities.

Regarding the monopoly of violence, O’Kane (2014) detailed a Marxist interpretation of the state as the enforcer of laws under the guise of guaranteeing the freedom and equality of its citizens. This pretence touches on the foundations for the construction and sustenance of several sovereign polities as we have them today, especially those claiming to uphold the tenets of democracy. For one, the essentialisation of democratic practice through an attribution of its origin to Greece in the West produces a one-sided lens that ignores the inherent practices of checks and balances within political arrangements of civilisations in other contexts, especially the pre-slavery/pre-colonial Global South. If anything, what models of democracies have portrayed in recent times signal an impending implosion as a consequence of the denial of freedom and equality. A denial which finds its ossification in the replacement of Volonte Generale with Volonte de l’Elite. In asserting O’Kane’s (2014) interpretation, the codification of private property ownership and operational model of labor, under the guise of legalising the rationality and equality of property rights, has served to entrench a power asymmetry that stifles the evolution of class antagonism. This structural perpetuation of state violence has in turn consistently reproduced opposing identities among citizens based on coloration and is continuously reinforced through the valorisation of the functioning of state agents. Within the broader context, the weaponization of state institutions by the ruling bourgeoisie of different countries is consummated in the alliances of different capitalist states within the global market.

The legitimisation of state violence among the comity of nations remains a focal point in the debate on state terrorism. For Blakeley (2012), state violence entails the application of violence to coerce the population into conforming with the wishes of the elites. With the impacts of this coercion extending beyond the direct victims, she defined the politicisation of state violence targeted at specific individuals (and groups) as state terrorism. In contesting the moral acceptance of the indiscriminate application of state violence, founded on the supposition that the state has the monopoly of violence, she drew attention to the fact that essentialising some of these violent acts qualifies them as acts of terrorism. The indices of terrorism variously espoused by scholars to include: premeditation, directed threats and/or acts of violence against arbitrary yet symbolic targets, instrumentalizing the victim to instil extreme fear in a defined-bewildered population (witnesses) in order to induce a behavioural change, as well as pattern of repeated acts of violence (Blakeley, 2012) give credence to this assertion. While she tried to emphasize the distinctions between individual acts of violence by state agents, state violence and state terrorism using the public or private character of the acts as parameters – especially in terms of the intended audiences, one could argue that the possibility of a sequential transitioning of these acts gives room to consider the first two as potential acts of terror. In an instance of mediation by dissenting participants, or secret observers, who deploy audio-visual technology to make violent acts of individual state agents or the state public, with the unintended consequence of instilling fear further blurs the layers of distinction. This implies that the intentionality of the perpetrators may not be a solely sufficient paradigm for determining acts of terror, depending on external influences. The argument that terrorism could result as a secondary effect of state violence -an unintended consequence- leaves the state no less culpable, especially considering the often-defensive reactions of the state expressed in its reluctance to bring perpetrators to justice. This defensive approach to impunity, which usually includes portraying defaulters as outliers from among noble professionals, signals the complicity of political actors, at least in sustaining the legitimacy and legality of the perpetration of violence by agents acting within the capacity of their affiliation to the state.

In the event of the recent protests against police brutality which started in the United States (US), it is important to situate this debate within the context of security and policing. While analysing the context of securitisation in the US, Alimahomed-Wilson and Williams (2016) reiterated the exorbitant cost (approximately $600bn annually) of maintaining troops in about 160 countries and territories globally, for reasons of counterterrorism and national security. Such a premium on national security may have informed the recent deployment of troops against protesters who were airing their grievances to remonstrate the killing of black people under the banner of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The narrative of the state on the importance of protecting lives and properties in the event of arson and looting during the protests may have followed an official logic, but the observation of difference in comparison to responses during far-right protests, inferred from the dominance in coloration, weaponry and motives implicates this logic. Drawing from the Bureau of Justice statistical data, Alimahomed-Wilson and Williams (2016) noted that the US had the highest number of incarceration rates globally, alongside the well-known fact that Black males made up the highest number of prisoners in the country. They argued that this was mainly due to the fact that several wars declared on criminality have actually focused of stereotyping people from communities of color. This identity of perennial culpability in the face of crime has been challenged severally both in the conventional and social media, especially through the projection of racialized sentencing - where decisions on same crimes committed by persons of same age, same criminal records but different colors exposed the connivance of judges in exerting perpetual fear in Black male folks who bear the brunt of the legal violence by the state, alongside the victimization by war-equipped local police departments.

In furthering the exploration of the exercise of state power beyond its limits, it is important to revisit Article 4(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which addresses the derogation of rights under certain conditions. Suffice to state that even within peculiar circumstances that were provided for, certain rights remain non-derogable. These include the right to life, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom from medical and scientific experimentation without consent, freedom from imprisonment for inability to fulfil a contractual obligation, prohibition of slavery and servitude, prohibition of retroactive implementation of criminal laws, right to recognition before the law, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Vis a vis these provisions, perhaps it has become imperative to delineate national contexts of internal security from transnational war situations as this could help in dissecting the proportionality and legal contexts of acts of violence by state agents, especially during law enforcement missions. This could also help to gauge the appropriateness of the methods of policing with the disproportionate use of force and the flagrant abuse of these non-derogable rights by state agents without appropriate consequences for their actions.

By extension, the conventional corporate media is also implicated in the propaganda of the justification for state violence through its glorious portraiture of security agents as dutifully curtailing social and physical dangers of delinquents who suffer fatalities (Sim, 2010). As it were, this branch of society appears to have largely ceded its watchdog role as the fourth estate of the realm to the new media with the latter’s growing influence. What with the technological revolution which allows for contrasting portraiture resulting from the democratisation of news by the digital media, which allows for (live)streaming videos sharing experiences of police brutality. Beyond the spatio-temporal collapse of audiences by the digital media, it has also provided an important platform for mobilization, activism and advocacy. Since the last week of May, 2020, the revolts against police brutality once again triggered the digital space as the point of convergence for interactions of an imagined community of sufferers. Netizens took to the digital space to advance their advocacy and mobilize protest marches for #BlackLivesMatter from different countries across different continents moving from the US through to the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, France, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. However, the paradox of this current wave remains that while there is an emerging global movement against state violence, national governments continue to affirm their proclivity to violent response arbitrarily targeted at opposition and dissenting voices. The state, within its own dialectics, continues to test the resilience of this transnational moment for torching the nocturnal body of the pseudo-democratic politics that Mbembe (2019) calls out as necropolitics. As a fallout of the imposition of the Volonte de l’Elite, the context of necropolitics reinstates the abnegation of state violence as initially captured by Frantz Fanon in his Wretched of the Earth where impending violence is inherent in colonial dialectics. The incessant fatalities resulting from police brutality has underscored context-based sociopolitical problems including racism, political acquiescence, lack of proper training, class stereotypes and elite capitalist manipulations. The scenario of the killing of George Floyd on the 25th of May, 2020 was initially met with the usual mild official response with charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter against former officer, Derek Chauvin. The momentum of the protest movements has however resisted the status quo ante of acquiescence resulting in an upgrade of the charges to second-degree murder, as well as the charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder against three other sacked officers present at the scene. There have also been institutional steps towards police reforms signalling that conventional apologies of ‘pious’ political officials for state violence (leading to fatalities) are no longer sufficient, as the ‘immunity’ of police actors are undergoing severe scrutiny in the wake of global resistance.

A report by Amnesty International on state response during the recent protests covering a one-month period between May 26 and June 23, 2020 reported about 125 incidents in 40 states where the police aggressed peaceful protesters, journalists and observers. The forms of police violence reported include ramming SUVs into a crowd of protesters, the classic of shoving to the ground, pepper spraying, hitting the head with batons, shooting of cannisters, teargassing, firing of rubber bullets which have been proven to inflict permanent injuries, punching, hitting protesters with riot shields amongst others. The aura of untouchability on display by state agents who have remained recalcitrant, as expressly displayed with the resignation of 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s response team after the suspension of two members of their team for violent conduct, signifies the depth of the reforms to be undertaken. As it were, the police occupy most of the frame of the nocturnal body of pseudo-democratic polities, serving as the pivotal institution for reproducing perpetual domination through coercion. With the recent rejection of the proposed tokenist reforms by democrats in the US congress, perhaps it is time to change the status quo and transit from the nocturnal impetus of the state to the protection of the homo sacer from bare living.

Selected References

Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake and Dana Williams. 2016. State Violence, Social Control and Resistance. Journal of Social Justice, 6: 1-15

Amnesty International. 2020. USA: End Unlawful Police Violence against Black Lives Matter Protests.

Blakeley, Ruth. 2012. State Violence as State Terrorism. In: Breen-Smyth, Marie (ed) The Ashgate Research Companion to Political Violence. London: Ashgate, 63-78.

Gabbatt, Adam. 2020. US Policing: Protests about Police Brutality are met with Wave of Police Brutality across US. The Guardian, June 6.

Mbembe, Achille. 2019. Necropilitics. Durham: Duke University Press

O'Kane, Chris. 2014. State Violence, State Control: Marxist State Theory and the Critique of Political Economy. Viewpoint Magazine, October 29

Scott, David. 2016. State Violence. In: Morley, Sharon, Jo Turner, Karen Corteen and Paul Taylor (eds) A Companion to State Power, Liberties and Rights Bristol: Policy Press, 267

Sim, Joe. 2010. Thinking about State Violence. Violence of the British State. Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.