Mike Brown’s Body: Meditations on War, Race and Democracy

The Ferguson protests provide an occasion to meditate on the relationship between war, race, freedom and democracy, especially in light of several events: the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 13th amendment; the 100th anniversary of World War I and the U.S. occupation of Haiti; the 50th anniversary of SNCC’s Freedom Summer, the March on Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the assassination of Malcolm X, and the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act; and the latest “Freedom Summer” of 2014, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement and anti-police violence protests to the war on Gaza.  Taken together, these three lectures performs something of a political autopsy on Mike Brown to reveal both the history of the racial regimes that ultimately left him dead in the streets for four and a half hours, but more importantly, reveal the alternative possibilities for creating democracy rooted in freedom, justice, and decolonization.


John Brown’s Body: Abolition Democracy Against Perpetual War

This talk opens with the killing of Mike Brown and the wave of anti-police protests, and suggests that the struggle for justice for Brown and other victims is not new, nor is it merely a consequence of the militarization of police.  Instead, Brown—like Tanisha Anderson and others—is a casualty of a war originating over 500 years ago, a war to colonize, dispossess, enslave, deny rights of citizenship; a war to decolonize, repossess, emancipate, democratize.  What we’re witnessing, in other words, is part of a much longer struggle not just against enslavement, colonialism, and state violence, but for democracy itself—a struggle on the part of racialized subjects to end racial capitalism’s brutal war, to bring peace and a new democratic, just, order to the world.


Other Brown Bodies: World War on Working Class

Kelley makes at least three central arguments: 1) that World War I was both a war for colonies and a war on the working class, and that the U.S. opened the real “Western Front” with the occupation of Vera Cruz (1914), Haiti (1915), Dominican Republic (1916), etc. 2) that this moment marked the criminalization of Other Brown bodies–the “immigrant”–which in turn masked the war’s character. Examining the consequences of immigration policy rooted in race, empire, militarization, and class war, Kelley shows how mass immigration and immiseration are produced and reproduced, how such policies laid the basis for the national security state in the U.S., and generated massive inequality on a world scale. 3) Suggest that this modern racial regime shored up white support for U.S. imperial power and succeeded in defeating the global working-class, foreclosing (yet again) a radically different future.


Ending War?: Decolonial Democracy Against Neoliberalism

The final lecture circles around 1965 but extends back to Bandung (1955) and decolonization and moves well into the next five decades in order to explain the consolidation of neoliberalism as not just a response to economic crisis but global and national struggles to decolonize, dismantle racism, patriarchy, the rule of capital, and an expanding national security state.  Again, Kelley will discuss both the alternative futures born of this moment, and their defeat.   The so-called Cold War was hardly “cold”: the deployment of U.S. combat operations, state violence, and interventions actually escalated, but the main theaters of war were the Third World and America’s ghettoes and barrios.  The massive expansion of U.S. military and commercial hegemony coincides with successful multiracial struggles for democracy that ultimately achieve the universal franchise for the first time in the U.S.

If They Take You in the Morning, They Will be Coming for Us That Night

I spent inauguration day not in front of the television but with my wife touring the Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary exhibition by the artist Kerry James Marshall. The retrospective ranged from Marshall’s diverse depictions of black interior life to his sometimes playful and often searing considerations of various aspects of American history. For me, it was a powerful and necessary alternative to the shameful spectacle unfolding in Washington that morning.

Yet try as I might to take my mind off of the installation of the new president, and all that his ascension represented, it was impossible to fully escape from the looming dread of our new collective reality. As I neared the end of the exhibition, two sets of images in particular spoke to me about the need for vigilance and sustained, principled resistance under the new regime.

In the first, a triptych entitled Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), Marshall takes a well-known photograph of the 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, digitally “whitewashes” the gruesome scene, and isolates individual white bystanders captured looking directly towards the photographer’s lens. Marshall frames each of the women’s faces within a locket-like necklace. Though I teach about lynching in my courses and invite my students to dwell on questions of both individual and group complicity in the horrors of systemic racial terror, there was something about the guile with which Marshall highlights these “accessories” to the crime that stopped me in my tracks.

Beyond the artist’s statement regarding a specific historical moment or any simple condemnation of distant actors long ago, I was compelled by what I took to be Marshall’s challenge to the viewer: To what crimes against our common humanity are we all accessories?

Just around the corner from these images another of Marshall’s works delivered a message seemingly tailor-made for this fateful moment. The large scale abstract painting Red (if they come in the morning) (2011) dates from just a few years ago, yet it conveys the weight of decades of black struggle. The phrase that appears in large block letters filling the sweeping red canvas bookended by narrow black and green borders was immediately recognizable to me as an adaptation of the words of that signal American prophet, James Baldwin. In November 1970 Baldwin penned an open letter to activist intellectual Angela Davis, then incarcerated and charged with capital crimes for which she would later be exonerated following an international grassroots support campaign. Baldwin ends his letter with apotent statement about the need for people of conscience to act.

It is not enough, Baldwin insists, simply to be aware of a moral crisis. “If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name,” he writes. Baldwin then concludes:

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

I have read that letter often, shared it with friends and students. Encountering Baldwin’s caution, via the work of Kerry James Marshall, on the day an unrepentant xenophobic, misogynist, white nationalist took the oath to assume the nation’s highest office was auspicious.

Exactly one week later, the illegitimate president signed yet another immoral and unconstitutional executive order – the latest in a series of cruel, punitive, and profoundly short-sighted measures meant to consolidate his power, punish the vulnerable, and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. As promised, they had come for the refugees, the immigrants, the Muslims.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” the human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson reminds us. If I were to heed the lessons my mother had taught me, if I were to honor those freedom fighters who had made possible the considerable privileges I enjoy, if I were to be true to the history I write and teach about, then there was only one choice. I boarded the subway for the hour and a half journey underground through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eventually out to Queens: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Terminal 4.

I joined the protests in solidarity with the vulnerable populations targeted by this capricious decree; with the immigrant workers whose labor allows this city and this country to function; with the activists, organizers, and lawyers struggling on the front lines; and with my fellow New Yorkers wishing to embody and make manifest genuine compassion, democracy, community, and resistance. I joined the protests for my students – past, present, and future – who dare to speak up and speak out. I joined the protests for the migrant diaspora that is my father’s family, originating in eastern Nigeria and now residing in three countries and at least seven states. I joined the protests for my children who are (thankfully) too young to understand the viciousness and hatred of the current moment but to whom I will one day have to answer.

I have been to scores of demonstrations in my life in support of a wide range of causes. I have felt the euphoria of standing tall and “doing something” and the nagging despair that says that clever chants and razor-sharp slogans are meaningless in the face of entrenched power. I know well that protests and marches are not the only valid forms of resistance and that, for many people, participation in a mass demonstration is not an option. Letters and petitions, phone calls to elected officials and business leaders, strategic voting, investigative reporting, lawsuits, boycotts, strikes, slow downs, walk outs, sit ins, the full range of art and human creativity. We need it all.

But on this cold Saturday in January I knew I needed to be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people of like mind, signs, fists, and camera phones in the air, voices raised in unison — facing down the agents of the state, demanding justice, and refusing to accept the unacceptable.

“Resist, fight back, this is our New York…”