If you were in the streets of Fullerton on Saturday, January 18th, 2014 – you assuredly encountered a strange tension. No, it didn’t come from the Fullerton Police, who made a tactical decision to avoid any overt presence at the demonstration for most of the day (although they were definitely operating covertly and eventually even dusted off their APC to validate those DHS dollars!) No, instead of at skirmish lines or in kettles, this tension – as it so often seems in recent years – emanated from a group of liberal finger-waggers who have been anointed as “the families.”
Imbued with the community’s natural and sincere esteem and often seen shrouded in the perceived nobility of their very real suffering, the exaltation of “the families” as the leaders of the struggle – more often than not – predetermines the terrain of struggle as a decidedly liberal one. After all, our hearts are with them in their quest for justice. Our minds, however, need to remain focused on the reality that the state will never – and actually has no discernible interest in – serving justice as you or I may conceive of it.
When we first saw the community start to step off the sidewalk and into the street that sunny day, “the families” were quickly invoked in the service of the very institution they were ostensibly protesting against; the police. Even the proud and once-militant Brown Berets themselves, perhaps in deference to “the families”, were reduced that day to directing traffic. Tensions themselves were, in fact, greatly heightened when the few Berets there that day took up the task of freeing an intersection so that traffic could flow. Brown Berets, who I hold in utmost esteem for their historical and violently repressed struggle, became little more than crossing guards. Apparently, the business of Fullerton must continue so that consciousness can be raised – or some such liberal drivel.
“The families don’t want to disrupt traffic!” Someone commanded from the sidewalk. It wasn’t Ron Thomas. I ignored it. But even if it was Kelly Thomas’ grieving father, I would’ve still ignored it. I didn’t go to Fullerton for ex-cop Ron Thomas. And even if I did – even if I was under the command of “Kelly’s Army” – orders coming down that chain of command since 2011 have ranged from “when a police officer has me down, and is tasering me, I’m gonna kill him” and ambiguously “raising hell” to othering radicals who might actually raise a modicum of hell as “opportunists.” Understand this: I am not an opportunist; I am someone who is still capable of outrage. I know there are more like me; I saw hundreds of them in Fullerton.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a place for grief. There is a need for empathy. In fact, building a more empathic civilization might be essential to creating the world I want to see. I empathize with the Thomas family. I can’t imagine their sense of loss. I can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to be Ron Thomas and listen to your son scream for you 31 times as he is beaten to death by men who wear a uniform similar to one you once wore yourself. I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch them hug their lawyers, kiss their loved ones and walk free after what they did to my wholly-hypothetical child. But there are support circles for that. The streets can’t be limited to becoming an endless support circle for grief.
I grieve for Kelly Thomas, just as I grieve for everyone who is killed by the historically unaccountable and inherently violent police institution. But I didn’t go to Fullerton more than two years after Kelly Thomas’ brutal murder for Kelly Thomas or for “the families”; not the Thomas family or any other family in that tragically-widening assemblage of police victims’ families.
No, I went to Fullerton to join with those who don’t want any more families to join the ranks of “the families” at all. I went to do something instead of feeling sad. I can feel sad at home. I often do. No, I went to create space, to communicate thoughts like this with others and to demonstrate that there are still people who will resist. Power needs to know that people will put their bodies on the line, and I went to be a part of whatever community is still possible in this miasmatic, post-modern pyrotechnic insanitarium – and to see what we’re still capable of. Sadness has a place – but it isn’t in the streets.
As Chris Taylor, a comrade from Chicago still capable of sadness, recently observed:
“I’m sad that theory won’t help my sadness resolve into a great burst of embodied laughter or turn into a kind of anarchist wake where we remember the dead but fight like hell for the living—and, yes, of course, always, the dead…
We go because we can, because we have that power, because we are abandoning as much as abandoned, and we live and act this doubleplay of refusing and being-refused together, in the joyous collective autonomy we might share after and through and within the bonecrunch of abject heteronomy.”
A visiting comrade from Oakland, who – with a winking emoticon – asked to be identified as Haymarket martyr “August Spies,” described the tension surrounding “the families” in Fullerton and beyond this way:
“Our movement is weak. Families that have suffered from police violence have little recourse for justice. While they can win a monetary award in civil court, and maybe get a headline or two, in all but a few cases, retribution, structural change, or any sort of meaningful justice is out of reach. The “movement”, in its weakness, pushes the families of victims to center stage, and it compensates them for it’s impotence with a kind of wages of grief. They take the helm of the anti-police brutality movement, in which few people, least of all them, has any idea of where to take it.
A lack of direction need not necessarily be disempowering: a chaotic, angry, riotous movement might not have direction, but we have seen that it can still motivate justice (e.g. the Oscar Grant case). What a chaotic and riotous movement can’t do, though, is sustain the character of reverence for victimhood or adhere to the typically liberal politics of “the families”. In the effort to provide “support” for “the families”, we, along with our substantial (and in potentially powerful) anger – become their consolation prize. This is just one of the mechanisms the traditional left manifests to suppress anger and other revolutionary sentiment. We should ask, if building a movement around “the families” of victims (around victimization and grief itself) is so empowering, then why would the corporate media, police, and legal system all conspire to help us keep them the center of our movement?
Somewhere between our comrades’ Taylor and “Spies” assessments, there is a greater part of a truth we need to locate. Together. I’ve been searching for it since I got home that afternoon, leaving Fullerton after the first rumors of snatch squads but before the pigs rolled out of their pen to arrest 14 of my comrades that day. (I am currently unarrestable, whatever that means in activist circles; so when I heard there were “snatch squads,” I told everyone I knew and made my departure.) How do we enable our movement to avoid Spies’ “mechanisms the traditional left manifests to suppress anger” and truly create Taylor’s “joyous collective autonomy” that many of us want? As Malcolm X said (and
Zach de la Rocha) once growled, “Anger is a gift.” Why do we keep giving that gift back, unopened, to the state –instead of utilizing it to further our collective liberation?
To that end, still another comrade I conferred with after returning from Fullerton recommended I read Wendy Brown’s States of Injury. It was a great suggestion. It has been blowing my mind for the past week and it is through that lens that I would like to start reconsidering what we need to do to liberate our movement from its liberal shackles. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, and I often say is a fine description of liberals, “I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.” I’m not waiting for the liberals to get their claws. I’m ready to create now; today and everyday.
“Morality emerges from the powerless to avenge their incapacity for action; it enacts their resentment of strengths they cannot match or overthrow.” – Wendy Brown
“For the morally superior position issuing from ressentiment to work, reason must drape itself in powerlessness or dispossession: it attacks by differentiating itself from the political-ontological nature of what it criticizes, by adopting the stance of reason against power, or, in Marx’s case, by adopting scientific objectivity against power’s inherent cloaking in ideology.” – Wendy Brown
In Fullerton, there were several moments when “the families” betrayed the people. In the beginning, it was when they commanded people to stay on the sidewalks – almost resorting to physical violence in order to implement their inchoate plan to destroy police brutality itself through a mere cacophony of supportive car honks. Rather than continue to exhaust themselves within this tension, the people had other ideas and initiated a spirited street march.
Now, I know not everyone can march. Or wants to. People have their own reasons and it isn’t my intention to question them, neither here nor at the demo itself. I would never compel someone else to take the streets and march. So I was not disappointed or angry at those who chose to stay at the Fullerton Police Headquarters and hold a vigil while others liberated the streets. But just as there needs to be a place for those people, there needs to be a place for those who want to march as well. Or do anything else. As the internet is fond of saying, our movement can (and perhaps should) be “all the things.”
That march, while full of indignation and beauty, was entirely peaceful. That is, unless as some media outlets reported, you think marching or blocking traffic is “violent”:
While the majority of those protesting were peaceful, it turned violent when some took control of intersections, blocked traffic and destroyed businesses. The largest part of the group carried signs and chanted.
People were beaming and energized – fully empowered. Their chants, particularly “Kelly Thomas/Rest in Peace/Never Forget/Fuck the Police!” reverberated off the bars and cafes that line Fullerton’s Commonwealth Avenue. When they bellowed “Who’s Streets? Our Streets!” the echoes rang off the buildings with the resonance of people collectively vocalizing truth from their asphalt instead of bluster from the shameful sidewalks so many liberals cling to.
As we marched, a middle aged man reproached me. Perhaps knowing that I am inured against appeals to the sacred family, he instead reached into his bag of political quotations for the liberal King. I knew it was coming. I hoped he would say, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,” or another favorite, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” He didn’t. Instead, he ad-libbed.
“Martin Luther King would shake his head at you kids,” he moralized.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, curious at this old white guy’s appropriation of a radical icon who was himself hounded by the FBI and most-likely assassinated with their knowledge and/or cooperation.
“Disrupting traffic like this – with this, this violence!” He stammered. From the march itself. “So wrong!”
I hadn’t seen any violence – just people marching in a street. If creating traffic is violence, people whose cars break down on the 405 stand to face some serious legal issues – including prison time. Get a flat tire, create traffic, go directly to prison. I suppose the logic isn’t too absurd in this carceral state, is it?
“You think MLK would decry a march?” I prodded. “Do me a favor: when you get home tonight, Google ‘Martin Luther King’ and ‘March.’ Let me know if King marched on sidewalks or streets in the images you find there.” (Note: MLK marched on sidewalks, too – but for fuck’s sake, y’all…)
So, on we marched. When we arrived near “Kelly’s Corner,” the public bus terminal nestled behind a bunch of what look like shitty, totally uninteresting bars and where Thomas was murdered by 6 savage pigs doing what they’re trained to do, the old tension returned. We had arrived at the Slidebar, the source of the original call to the Fullerton Police that started the sequence of events that eventually led to his murder. Some people, naturally, were outraged. They knew that the FPD, the pigs, had defended the delicate sensibility (and lies) of a bar employee over the sanctity of Kelly Thomas’ life. If you’ve forgotten how to feel enmity – that’s a point that should stir something in you. Take a moment to feel it.
Others remember that feeling. A plastic, patio chair was flung into the air and landed harmlessly on the ground. But then, as if on cue, “the families” (again, not The Thomases, even though I consider that immaterial) sprang into action – positioning themselves and their moralizing cadre in between 100 or so community members and some shitty bar that had openly lied about a homeless man because they wanted him removed so that his poverty (or seeming mental abnormality) wouldn’t upset their customers or stifle their profits. The Brown Berets, again disappointingly, also positioned themselves in the open defense of private property, of maintaining “order” – an unabashedly white supremacist and pro-business order – and tried to stifle the rage of the community by giving a megaphone to “the families.”
Deciding we could better settle the debate on a Facebook thread later, we realized as a community not to fight amongst ourselves and to continue our spirited march through Fullerton. The beauty quickly returned when we left that macabre place of death. The particularly obvious plain-clothes pig riding a rental beach-cruiser bicycle alone, in sandals and an unnatural looking tee shirt and shorts, and filming everyone – returned, too.
And so we marched some more.
After marching around downtown Fullerton, the now de rigeuer call to “take the freeway” arose from the crowd. It felt right. The people mobilized and began marching that way. But just as the freeway unfurled before us on the horizon, the march stopped.
The final schism then arrived. “The families” decided they wanted to head back to the Fullerton Police Station. To rejoin those holding their vigil. They moralized. They finger-wagged. They invoked their authority as “the families,” denouncing anyone who disagreed with them as disrespectful. Or opportunistic. Or adventurist. And then they split the once-beautifully empowered group by convincing many, some who rightly feel sympathy for what Wendy Brown calls “a nostalgic and broken humanist left,” to go back to a sidewalk at FPD Headquarters and hope for that magical car honk, that orgiastic Seventh Trumpet described in the Book of Revelations, that will finally bring state violence to its knees.
The march split. The air seeped out of our lungs. Our spirited chants lost their vitality. Tiredly and after much debate, those who wanted more went back for less, too.
What it seems these families want, and those whose deference to them likewise places them between militants and viable targets of opprobrium and rage by doing a pernicious brand of unofficial peace policing, is what Wendy Brown called, “the codification of injury and powerlessness.” But this, she also suggests, articulates an “inadequate apprehension of specifically post-modern modes of power.” In States of Injury, Brown elaborates:
“This effort, which strives to establish racism, sexism, and homophobia [ed. or “police brutality”?] as morally heinous in the law, and to prosecute its individual perpetrators there, has many of the attributes of what Nietzsche named the politics of ressentiment: Developing a righteous critique of power from the perspective of the injured, it delimits a specific site of blame for suffering by constituting sovereign subjects and events as responsible for the “injury” of social subordination. It fixes the identities of the injured and the injuring as social positions, and codifies as well the meanings of their actions all possibilities of indeterminacy, ambiguity, and struggle for resignification or repositioning. This effort also casts the law in particular and the state more generally as neutral arbiters of injury rather than as themselves invested with the power to injure.”
In this light, it is no wonder “Kelly’s Army” thinks “the jury” was to blame. Or even the two, individual pigs who contributed most to savage beating that ended his life. Many of us make the mistake of wanting to source our pain in an individual. To guilt them or shame them. To punish them. To seek vengeance upon them. But would that really prevent more families from joining “the families?” This is almost exactly what Brown seems to mean when she says:
“are we willing to engage in struggle rather than recrimination, to develop our faculties rather than avenge our subordination with moral or epistemological gestures, to fight for a world rather than conduct process on the existing one?”
Nietzsche – and particularly the concept of Ressentiment – can be difficult to understand. I also understand people’s reticence to engage with Nietzsche, as I have often felt he was a hypocrite who scorned pretty much anyone who wasn’t himself – including my fellow anarchists. He went so far as to call us, “anarchist dogs.” Yet, as a true hypocrite, he seems to have himself culled heavily from the work of Max Stirner. But going after Nietzsche himself is the definition of ad hominem, isn’t it? I like Nietzsche. Hypocrisy is uninteresting.
Nietzsche’s 19th Century experience of “anarchism” (not to mention his above-it-all disdain for pretty much everyone), really has little to say about the 21st Century anarchism I know. The anarchism I know isn’t singularly focused on the powerful state alone nor does it plead to the state to be more gentle with its power. It also doesn’t seek recognition on the state’s terms.
So while Wendy Brown does a wonderful job of recuperating Nietzsche for autonomous and anarchist readers, she does caution that he:
“excessively individualized a challenge that more importantly requires the deliberate development of postmoral and antirelativist political spaces, practices of deliberation and modes of adjudication…
we ought to part with Nietzsche, whose skills as diagnostician often reach the limits of their political efficacy in his privileging of individual character and capacity over the transformative possibilities of collective political invention, in his remove from the refigurative possibilities of political conversation or transformative cultural practices.”
In my estimation, Brown seems on to something. The arguments that took place on the streets of Fullerton echoed many of the sentiments expressed in States of Injury, and most certainly established that “the families” are beset by Nietzsche’s Ressentiment – a positionality that can never lead to liberation. After all, how does Brown not seem to describe the valorized families who so bravely suffer in public at every demonstration against police violence, yet moralize against and stifle those who have a different vision that is bigger than their own pain:
“If the “cause” of ressentiment is suffering, its “creative deed” is the reworking of this pain into a negative form of action, the ”imaginary revenge” of what Nietzsche terms “natures denied the true reaction, that of deeds. ” This revenge is achieved through the imposition of suffering “on whatever does not feel wrath and displeasure as he does” (accomplished especially through the production of guilt), through the establishment of suffering as the measure of social virtue, and through casting strength and good fortune (“privilege,” as we say today) as self-recriminating, as its own indictment in a culture of suffering: “it is disgraceful to be fortunate, there is too much misery.”
It’s not hopeless, of course. We will continue to go to fight against police violence everywhere it happens. We Go. It’s what we do.
Assuredly – “the families” will go, too. They will often try to assert themselves as our anointed leaders. It’s what they do. But we will continue to ask those we meet there, as our comrade “Spies” did at the start of this post, “if building a movement around “the families” of victims (around victimization and grief itself) is so empowering, then why would the corporate media, police, and legal system all conspire to help us keep them the center of our movement?”
And we will offer what Brown suggested might help us build together:
We will be “democratic to the point of exhaustion” and we will work hard at “developing the skills and practices of postmodern judgment.” We will stand with every community that rises from their isolation and pain in order to help create necessary, radical spaces where we will work, collectively, towards Brown’s “complex and diverse we” by continuing to practice some simple systems many “Occupy” alumni know well.
We will try to do this by showing up. By going. By engaging with ideological enemies, with those like our friends the Brown Berets who seem to have lost their way – their belief in possibility, with our black and red (or black and pink or black and green, or black and purple – but never black and yellow) comrades alike, and more importantly – with those just becoming (re)politicized within this anesthetized state of injury. We may fail. We may be called “opportunists” or “outside agitators,” but – as Brown suggests – we will alway be working on the streets to continue to:
1. learn how to have public conversations with each other
2. argu[e] from a vision about the common (“what I want for us”) rather than from identity (“who I am”)
3. explicitly postulate norms and potential common values
We are going to take the “I” out of Nietzsche and become “Wetzscheans” together. And in that long and arduous process, we will continue to create, take, take over and go beyond good and evil in this “radically disenchanted, postmodern world” in order to truly, finally be free – from the state, from the kyriarchy, from our own inhibitions, from our egos, from our jealousies, from our fears, from the pigs, from the moralizing families and from the rest of the fetters that bind us – and the liberalism that blinds us from seeing the coming insurrection.
We will always go and we will keep trying! With despair or with hope, with fiery speeches or with quiet conversations, we will organize and fight. Together. We aren’t the first and we won’t be the last to try:
Our aim was to emphasize will in a country that aimed to destroy you. Our instinct was to move towards the unknown in a country whose instinct was stasis. We fought for a day, one day that would end without the suffocating certainty that tomorrow would replicate it as all days had been replicated before. All our ambition was that the authorities would spend the night anxious even if that disturbed everybody’s sleep — but even so we dreamed of a sleep and an awakening untroubled by the authorities. – Alla and Douma, Graffiti for Two
And when they ask us, as they invariably will: “What do you think taking the streets will accomplish?” Instead of answering. Instead of arguing. We will turn the questioning back on them.
“What do you think a honked horn will accomplish?”