Black Lives Matter: Between Novelty and Repetition

By: Joseph Winters

June 22, 2020

Religion and Racial Justice: The George Floyd Protests

The recent global uprisings, gatherings, and confrontations in response to ongoing state and extrajudicial violence against black people (which repeats itself in the moment of resistance) could be referred to as an event that opens up something we cannot anticipate. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the event is the condition for creation and “resistance to the present” [1]. In addition, there is a duplicitous quality to the event—while an event is actualized in space and time, there is a part of the event that remains shadowy and opaque, that eludes determinacy and definition. Deleuze and Guattari associate this elusive part of the event with movement and becoming other. The notion of the event, among other things, allows one to think outside the moment vs. movement binary. Here, I am thinking of the all-too-familiar question: Is Black Lives Matter, or the current protests more generally, a moment or a movement? The assumption behind this question is that a moment is fleeting and without direction, while a movement attaches clear goals to marches, destruction of property, the occupation of police stations, vigils, and so forth. Within the idiom of the event, one can think of the current opposition to state violence, and endeavors to think a world without police, as expressions of kinetic energy, energy that can be directed toward goals but that also exceeds what can be actualized and rendered concrete.

And yet there is always a fraught relationship between prevailing logics and the event, and between the state of affairs and the disruptive energy associated with what Frederick Douglass called “unlawful assemblages” [2]. In other words, even as liberation requires a faithfulness to novelty, the new is never completely dissociable from a kind of repetition of what came before and what comes after. “I Can’t Breathe” were the final of words of Eric Garner, reiterated close to 10 times, words gasped by George Floyd six years later; the police raid that ended in the death of Breonna Taylor repeats the SWAT home invasion and killing of Korryn Gaines in 2016; a rally that honors and mourns the erasure of black life becomes a ritual in part because anti-black violence is its own sacrament, a quasi-religious practice that sanctifies and reproduces the order of things; the demand to abolish the police (and prisons) invokes and echoes the movement to eliminate slavery, an arrangement with an afterlife that slips through the loophole of the Thirteenth Amendment. 

In line with this difficult relationship between novelty and repetition, the event, which is the occasion for creation and resistance, is necessarily susceptible to reigning judgements, narratives, norms, and grammars. At the same time, the unprecedented can modify, and expose the limitations of, the logics that underwrite the social order. In my view, care and vigilance needs to be directed toward the general eagerness to assimilate this moment, to turn the unsettling quality of the event into slogans, campaigns, and projects that accord with the usual flow of things. Here, one might think of the litany of corporations using “solidarity with black lives” as an opportunity to accrue symbolic value. Or one might consider the tendency to claim that uprisings and protests are only valid when they abide by goal-oriented schemas, when collective desires, affects, and refusals exhibit a recognizable connection to policy change.

The former defense secretary James Mattis’ admirable critique of President Donald Trump provides an example of how an unanticipated rupture is always already prone to being contained—and not just by tear gas and rubber bullets but through speech and words as well. To be sure, Mattis is responding to Trump’s willingness to deploy military on U.S. citizens in order “to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.” In Mattis’ statement, he expresses anger and horror at troops being used against protestors who are demanding justice and equality and “insisting that we live up to our values—our values as a people and our values as a nation.” In addition, the former defense secretary accuses the president of violating Constitutional rights, dividing the nation (when we need strength and unity), and creating a conflict between military and civilians. One gets a sense that Mattis is appalled that American cities might be imagined as “battlespaces,” zones that are designated for enemies and adversaries overseas. In other words, Trump’s decision in a moment of crisis crossed the line between citizen and adversary, between those who need to be protected by the military and threatening forces that need to be quelled in the name of defense. 

There is too much to unpack here. For one, Mattis suggests that the recent protests are the result of a failure to live up to values rather than the values themselves—property, security, wealth accumulation, progress, and whiteness. Instead of treating the protests against state violence, which includes domestic and global policing, as an opportunity to address long-standing conflicts and tensions, Mattis focuses on Trump’s inability to unite and lead the country. Trump is treated as the primary source of trouble rather than the latest manifestation of a constellation of pernicious conditions and arrangements. Finally, when Mattis offers a warning about turning American cities into war zones, he forgets to mention how the militarization of policing has been in effect for decades. In addition, the former defense secretary implies that turning spaces outside of the United States into battle zones is unquestionable and necessary for safety. In order to show solidarity with the protestors, he must leave the U.S. war machine and militarism intact.

We should not be surprised that Mattis concludes his response to Trump in the following manner: “Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.” Here, Mattis associates the new with returning to the foundations of the country, with those ideals that sparked and sustain the American experiment. The new is no longer associated with an interruption or with what eludes order and containment; the new becomes synonymous with restoration and resurgence of America’s “benevolent” empire. The potential within the event is rerouted and corralled to restore faith in America in the era of Trump. And yet we know that slavery and colonial genocide are foundational to U.S. democracy, intertwined with the (surplus) values that Mattis wants us to live up to. The fact that slavery and settler colonialism can be excised from recuperative endeavors at least reminds us that the fantasy of coherence and wholeness involves disavowal and a kind of excess that cannot be fully incorporated. Perhaps the protests and gatherings in the name of the dead, and for the sake of new modes of living, could be described as a way to stay with the unassimilable. 

  1. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 108. 
  2. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Dover, 1969), 267.
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