Invisible Freedoms

It is the singular affliction of whiteness to suffer the slings and arrows of righteous indignation on the rare occasion its privileges are infringed by the power structures meant to secure them. High on the list of stuff white people don’t like is surveillance, at least when its traditional contours are involuted, the lidless eye of the state turned inward upon those comfortably accustomed to its selective imperception. I found my white self duly incensed upon discovering the upgraded amenities of Manhattan’s recently-renovated Penn Station. I don’t mean “renovated” in the architectural sense; Penn is still the same grotty old dump it’s been since supplanting its Doric predecessor in the 1960s, and will remain so until it relocates to the James Farley Post Office across the street, or is mercifully swallowed by a sinkhole, whichever comes first. I mean the spiffy new security apparatus, and particularly the insufferable video loop now permanently installed next to the Amtrak board warning passengers not to run if approached by one of the station’s roving K-9 patrols. This public service advisory is wholly gratuitous; what rational person, after all, would feel the urge to flee from a six-foot thug armed with Cujo and a Kalishnikov? Still, it was the prospect of being literally hounded onto the railroad that offended me. How very dare they, in America, no less? And then I lulzed, out loud, right there next to the new Dunkin Donuts, at my own pious incredulity. It was a conceit only a gringa could entertain. Scrape off the thick coat of whitewash and the dogs of Penn Station start looking a lot like chickens coming home to roost.

While the exponential growth of the security state since September 11th has decimated civil liberties across the land of the free, a degradation inaugurated by the administration of George W. Bush and revitalised rather than relieved by that of Barack Obama, the great train of American racism has hardly been derailed through the inconveniencing of white people by its functionaries, from the NYPD to the TSA. The targeted policing of people of colour has not given way to some mountaintop where Americans are selected for recon not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. Indeed the robotic requiem droning over the Penn Station tannoy eulogises a US Constitution so battered that it stands in danger of shrugging defeated back to its primeval form, when the liberties guaranteed by its safeguards against the tyranny of the state were afforded to the white male privileged few. The security playing field may have been elevated, but it has not been levelled, for the state has upped the surveillance stakes for people of colour at the same time. White still makes might.

“What on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” asked W.E.B. DuBois in 1920. Whiteness, he concluded, “is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” Whiteness signifies, by extension, the ownership of the self, the integrity of the body as it navigates public space, an exercise in personal property rights built upon the reasonable expectation of freedom: from prying eyes, from physical molestation. It is the sanguine presumption of immunity against the eventuality of events like the following, which took place in Anaheim, California a little over a week ago:

Two narratives have emerged in the wake of this incident. The official version, faithfully recited by the LA Times and other mainstream mouthpieces, holds that on the afternoon of July 21, Anaheim police fired nonlethal rounds and accidently released a police dog upon a threatening crowd that had gathered near the spot where 25 year-old gang member Manuel Diaz was shot and killed after reaching for a presumed weapon while pursued by a patrol seeking to question him for “suspicious activity.” The unofficial account, unfolding through days of subsequent unrest and compiled in detail by Doug Kauffman of Liberation News among other sources, suggests a rather different scenario: that unarmed Diaz was shot in the head execution-style after having already been brought to his knees by a preliminary wound to the leg, that police devoted the next few minutes to crowd control rather than medical assistance while the young man lay dying, and that they subsequently opened fire without warning and unleashed a vicious K-9 upon a group of residents peacefully demanding answers in the wake of the fifth police shooting in Anaheim this year – a count that would rise to six the following day – all but one of the victims young Latino men. The “threat” said to precipitate the assault on the assembled was not bullets, but bottles – or possibly rocks – hurled at officers by angry residents, though no such evidence seems yet to have emerged.

Threats to state authority are weighed upon a scale tipped heavily in favour of the white and the right. Many of those deemed least menacing come ironically these days from the representatives of the state itself. Failed Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, most famously, in 2010 announced the release of a map targeting Democrats who had supported the health care reform bill with the Tweet “Don’t retreat, reload!” One such legislator marked by Palin’s crosshairs was Gabrielle Giffords, who was subsequently gunned down in the parking lot of a grocery store at a meet-and-greet with constituents following previous instances of threats and vandalism at her Arizona office. A few months after Palin took aim, Jesse Kelly, Giffords’ Tea Party opponent in the mid-term election, sponsored a campaign event with the tagline: “Get on target for victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” Nevada State Assemblywoman and Teapot-turned-Republican Sharron Angle evoked the prospect of “Second Amendment remedies” against Congress in general, and recommended “taking out” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid more specifically, in a radio interview in May of last year. More recently, former GOP spokesman Matt Davis endorsedarmed insurrection” following the Supreme Court sanction of the Affordable Care Act this past June. And lest anyone ascribe such rhetoric to the hot-tempered mannerisms of the wild west, look to the genteel Atlantic. Two months ago, Jay Townsend, spokesman for Republican Representative Nan Hayworth of New York, recommended “throwing some acid” on serving congresswomen of the Democratic Party for the egregious crime of demanding equal pay for equal work.

So let us be perfectly clear about what constitutes an acceptable level of threat in these United States. You may, if you are white, wealthy and powerful – perhaps even a member of the government itself – recommend despatching disagreeable colleagues with an assault rifle. You may even, to deliver your disgruntlement in a more pointedly gendered fashion, advise disfiguring adversarial leaders with liquid chemicals, a crime which, when committed in other countries, justifies military occupation. What you may not do, particularly if you are a working class person of colour, is assemble on your front lawn armed with an arsenal of baby strollers and bottled water to inquire why your local police force shot your neighbour and left him handcuffed in the grass to bleed to death. This is because the first, as Jon Stewart has so expertly convinced the gullible American salariat, is a problem of diminished “civility.” The second, as any Yahoo! knows, amounts to a “riot.” It is crucial to note that not one of the expressions of white rage described above was uttered with any intent to conceal. On the contrary, each of these cowardly threats, however cleverly veiled, was literally broadcast via the mass technologies of our day: Twitter, Facebook, Email, even old-fashioned radio. They were meant to be seen, and yet the authorities charged with the protection of federal officials turned a blind eye. The all-too-visible residents of Anaheim at least had the moxie to face their enemy in person. It is little wonder, given such insupportable but normative American contradictions, that many of them did express themselves in the language of the unheard in the ensuing days.

However horrific the spectre of a police dog overturning a pram, or snapping at the heels of a toddler caught up her mother’s arms, it is not the assault on the spectators which makes this video remarkable. It is rather the final moments of the KCAL report, in which correspondent Jay Jackson relays witness testimony that Anaheim police attempted to purchase the video footage captured by bystanders. A few days after the Anaheim attack, a Manhattan dry cleaner reported that plain-clothes officers from the NYPD covered a mural painted with permission by graffiti artist Alan Ket on the wall of her business. The mural said “MURDERERS,” and referred in part, according to Ket, to the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Ramarley Grant in the Bronx, for whose manslaughter an officer with a documented history of police brutality has recently been indicted. These incidents are not entirely commensurable. One constitutes an exercise in damage control by a PR-conscious police force, the other an exercise in potential evidence tampering. Yet both indicate the dedicated delitescence of a watchful state whose security strategy depends upon the sightlessness of the scrutinised.

When English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon in eighteenth century, he conjured an infrastructure of internment that would render its inmates paradoxically palpable and purblind: seen, yet unseeing. The Panopticon, in whatever institutional form it might manifest – from the big house to the workhouse to the madhouse to the poorhouse – was predicated upon the principle of self-regulation, in which the observed would modify their behaviour simply by virtue of the potential for observation, regardless of its actuality at any given moment. Bentham’s reasoning was prosaic: it was cheaper, on the whole, to convince people to police themselves than to police them outright. Bentham may be forgiven for failing to foresee the contingency of profitable incarceration itself, a process now so thoroughly privatised in the United States that the servants of capital cower beneath the mandate of their masters to maintain the largest penal colony on the planet – a market whose truck and barter in Black flesh Glen Ford has convincingly likened to the slave trade – still his ideas bespeak the contradictory liberties bestowed by the relativity of visibility in the age of securitisation.

While the hoosegows of Bentham’s green and pleasant land have yet to achieve the confinement rates of its imperial scion across the water, still colour conveys, in Britain as America, a patina of suspicion, the kind that renders one simultaneously transparent to the policeman, the neighbourhood watch, the government bureaucrat, but opaque to the employer, the university, or the Job Centre. People of colour in Bentham’s native London, like those in her sister city across the water, are far more susceptible to stop and search than whites. Residents of African-Caribbean descent in particular are 26 times more likely to be questioned without suspicion under Section 60 of the Public Order Act in a country where Black citizens comprise 3% of the total population but 15% of those subjected to stop and search. It is a principle which operates upon the conspicuity of skin colour in the intimacy of the streets, and nomenclature across the distance of the job market, with British employers responding more readily to the Romneyesque dog-whistle of a pleasingly Anglo-Saxon name. In neither country does the principle of racial visibility operate on the basis of melanin or moniker alone. The cleverly concocted ethnic category of “terrorist” draws the eye of the state toward that amalgam of people presumed to be Muslim, Arab, or Middle Eastern in both places, whether courtesy of the NYPD or the London Met.

White people, of course, are not entirely impervious to either state scrutiny or the brutality it habitually heralds, particularly when apprehended in the now-criminalised acts of poverty or protest. Indeed one of the most enduring memes of the Occupy movement will undoubtedly remain the spectre of a university police officer casually pepper-spraying a group of largely white student protesters at UC Davis. Beyond dissent, the selective obscurity of state calculus manifests not just as a function of race, but a function of class. Thus do the invisible benefits of what Suzanne Mettler has termed the “submerged state,” delivered silently and with little fanfare to the middle and upper-classes, stand in stark distinction to the very visible ones the poor must ask for, sign for, and therefore, think about. The opposite holds true as well: those to whom the state reveals itself most clearly are most perceptible to the state. Thus can multiple American jurisdictions propose drug testing for welfare recipients, while others place ever more stringent restrictions on the use of food stamps for vice commodities, without dreaming of imposing the same strictures on Wall Street, which would pose more visibility problems than one. The spectre of dozens of besuited brokers queued up at the corner of Zucotti Park trading government vouchers for lines will never haunt lower Manhattan, however much charlie four trillion dollars may buy.

Did I say “singular?” Not entirely so, for male privilege shares much in common with the blissful ignorance of its racial analogue. No American woman, however white or wealthy, labours under any illusion that her bodily integrity will be respected in public space – or increasingly, in private. Privilege, like securitisation, is gendered as well as racialised, and generates similar degrees of umbrage upon its contravention. Thus did Kentucky Congressman Rand Paul, a stalwart soldier in the crusade against women’s reproductive rights, recently find himself discomfited by the prospect of a TSA pat-down a mere month before the Republican-controlled Kentucky State Senate passed a bill requiring women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before obtaining an abortion, and providing criminal penalties for noncompliance. The good Senator objected to the manhandling of his person, even when – as women are constantly instructed by tedious men who will never sit spread-eagle in a mechanical chair to deal (in any manner) with the consequences of a pregnancy they helped create – it is allegedly for his own good. Yet gender is never deracialized, either. In Kentucky as in other states, Senate Bill 103 (later downgraded to require abdominal ultrasounds only) would have disproportionally affected women of colour who, due to diminished access to long-term forms of birth control, have disproportionate rates of unplanned pregnancies and higher rates of abortion, illustrating what Frances Beale has called the “double jeopardy of being black and female.” While the Kentucky bill was ultimately defeated, similar proposals have passed in Texas and Virginia and are moving through the legislatures of several other states. Truly the American surveillance state knows no boundaries, and its increasingly invasive instruments may soon be colonising a vagina near you.

As the Anaheim assault avers, surveillance technologies may occasionally be turned back upon the state itself. This lesson had been taken aboard by the New York Civil Liberties Union long before the death of Manuel Diaz. New Yorkers may now download a handy app called “Stop and Frisk Watch,” which allows witnesses to film police stops in progress and transmit the resulting data to the NYCLU as well as fellow travellers in the area. The Occupy movement, for its own part, has produced an instructive video for prospective citizen journalists outlining sartorial choices to guard against the confiscation of valuable footage. An ingenious invention to emerge from the British student movement is Sukey, a crowd-sourcing technology which allows protesters to avoid (or locate) emerging police kettles. Such strategies suggest an involution of the Panopticon in which the watchers become the watched, the opacity of the observers overpowered by the penetrating perception of the people. Nonetheless I am dubious of the propensity for technological appropriation to solve social injustices, particularly when, as demonstrated amply by our own conservative leaders, visibility is no reliable indicator of vindication. And no matter how smart our phones become, the ordinary citizen has little hope of defeating through technology a nuclear-armed security state well on its way to waging war remotely through an army of flying robots.

The United States inflicts no indignity upon its own people that it will not amplify tenfold against its enemies, as indicated by my colleague M. Jamil Hanifi in his analysis of the bloody humiliating terror inflicted upon the peoples of Afghanistan, where the American state signifies not only boots on the ground but eyes in the skies. In a chilling article in Sunday’s New York Times, drone pilots describe observing the workaday activities of “insurgents” as though they were invisible members of the family: “I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” said one. “You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night,” reports another. Chaplains are on standby, according to the Times, to provide spiritual absolution lest the lens of the machine convey horror to its resident ghost – horror, perhaps, such as the death of 16 year-old Tariq Aziz in America’s “covert” operations in Pakistan. According to several witnesses, Tariq was killed days after attending a Jirga in Islamabad convened by local elders and western rights organisations to debate how best to oppose America’s drone war. Tariq stepped forward with the brave offer to collect photographic evidence of civilian devastation that might convince the American people to end their government’s programme of remote slaughter. He never got the chance, for three days after the council, he was killed near his hometown of Mirali by a Hellfire missile along with his twelve year-old cousin Waheed Khan. I wish I subscribed to the belief in some retributive afterlife, for if the details of these accounts are sooth, then no fire in hell burns hot enough to purge the souls of those who murdered this child, and Tariq’s survivors have little more than a snowball’s chance of securing for him any earthly justice. Nor do any of the 178 children reported to have been killed by American drones in Pakistan alone.

If anything unites Southern California and Northern Pakistan, the people gunned down by the militarised American police and the people gunned down by the American military they increasingly emulate, it is perhaps best captured by the trope of the series my colleague Max Forte commenced in these pages a day ago. The utter contempt with which the American state regards the dignity of these victims – the integrity of their persons, the truth of their stories – is the product of a global apartheid operating within and between nation states, a great white wave observable from the mountains of Waziristan to the Canyon of Anaheim. The vast irony that its force has been shaped in no small part by the first Black president to reside in the White House is lost on no one, and it is a verity with which American voters must come to terms in November, as Hope goes up in Hellfire.

This is the first in a series of ruminations on whiteness.

3 thoughts on “Invisible Freedoms

  1. Maximilian Forte

    Great essay Eliza. In case readers have not seen this, a U.S. government document linking women, “security” (i.e. occupation and surveillance), and U.S. interests abroad:

    December 2011

    Here is a small sample, from page 4:

    “Around the world, several of DOD’s Combatant Commands have made gender issues a focus. U S Africa Command has established a Gender Working Group focused on integrating gender considerations across the command’s programs and engagements with African militaries. In Afghanistan, U S Central Command and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have established gender advisors to assist commanders in identifying the differing effects a potential operation may have on local men and women In addition, the Marine Corps’ Female Engagement Teams and the Army’s Cultural Support Teams are providing new avenues for women Marines and soldiers to support ongoing operations and engage women in local populations”

  2. Eliza Jane Darling

    Thanks for that, Max. One gender action plan they might consider is preventing women soldiers from being sexually assaulted by their ostensible comrades at rates many times higher than the civilian population. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

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