Arms and the Man

In an antiblack world, black people, even when weaponless, are always considered armed

If “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is an expression of “humanity,” as one tweet has it, we must ask for whom that humanity is available.
—Keguro Macharia

Innocuous or insurgent, it makes no difference. You are never innocent, so you waste no breath pleading with a “redeeming adjective.”
—Jared Sexton

In a piece entitled “hands up, don’t shoot,” published via WordPress less than a week after the state sanctioned murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Keguro Macharia deftly examines the raised-hands gesture adopted by protesters—understood as a sign for surrender across the world—as part of a commonly used system of human communication (with the body), or what he calls a “global bodily vernacular.” The proliferation of the phrase in print and in various theaters of protest, for Macharia, belies the grim reality that black people in America have no access to this seemingly universal mode of communication. “Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular,” Macharia writes, “the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant.” To take part in a globally circulated language of surrender, black people would have to be (seen as) human, and they are not.

The impossibility of black surrender will remain a problem for black politics (and political projects) unless this semiotic exclusion from humanity is understood as a historical phenomenon. What is now commonly referred to as “antiblackness” was the bedrock of the Enlightenment’s “Man.” Philosopher Sylvia Wynter charts the trajectory by which it became the fossil fuel of the Western discursive construction “humanity.” To summarize rather abruptly, Winter’s work makes clear that the West defined itself as “human” in contrast to what it identified as blackness; humanity is a fictive category brought into existence through processes of exclusion and othering. Antiblackness, then, is nothing if not the condition of possibility for our very idea of the human.

Such an analysis necessarily reorients, if not throws into crisis altogether, the aforementioned politics and their projects. But such has been and remains the work of the black radical tradition, which openly functions as outlaw culture to the present order of knowledge. And a particularly insidious manifestation of this present order of knowledge is the liberalism that overwhelmingly dominates popular discourse around the execution of black people by police. It is a liberalism that results in black people across the political spectrum resorting (reflexively) to what historian Robin Kelley calls “redeeming adjectives” such as “unarmed,” or “innocent,” without recognizing that, precisely because they are black, these victims are categorically disallowed from innocence, categorically excluded from humanity.

Macharia follows Wynter as he cautions us to consider that the “insistent repetition” of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” rather than articulating a humanity that we can take for granted in the context of white (civil) society, might suggest the quotidian ways in which black life forms are barred from access to the vernaculars of the human. It stands to reason that those who are always required to make a ritualized spectacle of the assertions of their humanity or their innocence are neither innocent nor human.

In the weeks following the one-year anniversary of the protests in Ferguson, for example, law enforcement officials and conservative pundits conspired to blame the Black Lives Matter movement(s) for a handful of ­officer-involved shootings, to reappropriate that commonly used phrase. The reality, of course, is that the overwhelming majority of those involved in said movements dare not even speak of harming cops. But black people’s mere refusal to be silent about their slaughter is equated with violence itself in a world that violently denies them access to humanity. State officials have lamented that the shootings of officers represent “an assault on the very fabric of society.” But it is not an endorsement of the attacks to question the way they are reflexively denounced, or to look at how clinging to adjectives such as “unarmed” impedes the work of ushering in a new society, unwinding that fabric.

When we use the word “unarmed” and those like it, we seek to communicate a status of nonthreat, to relay the information that one was innocent of the sort of resistance, better known as “crime,” that would give the a state reason to execute its own citizens. Redeeming adjectives make sense. It is not unreasonable to desire that our routine interactions with police, including arrests for penal violations, not end in executions. But let us examine the hypothetical situation wherein black people are allowed access to the innocence that this essay argues they cannot presently make a claim to. Let us say that reform-minded approaches such as the institution of body cameras or a change in the demographics of departments made it such that defenseless (an alternative to the redeeming adjective “unarmed”) black persons were no longer routinely executed in cold blood. Are our imaginations so famished that this can legitimately be considered an end goal? Is the assertion that “black lives matter” no more than a mask for the timid and modest demand that our lives be taken with a numbing uneventfulness rather than an easily identifiable spectacle of a moment?

Consider the millions of men and women locked away in prisons, or the literally countless number of black people who wither away from the structural lack of access to proper health care, affordable housing, education, employment, living wages, or real food. Consider the black women overwhelmingly murdered and abused by black men, or the thousands of mostly homosexual men and heterosexual women living with HIV. A politics that myopically focuses on the spectacle of police killings, even if it doesn’t center black men (though it usually does), cannot be defended as ethical. Nor can the obsessive and uncritical use of qualifiers meant to communicate that we are not, in fact, threats to this world built on violently consuming us.

The atrocities of this antiblack, hetero­patriarchal, capitalist system evince the need for a new world entirely. And to bring that world about, we will most certainly have to be armed: with knowledge, with love, with community, with organization, with music, with a politics that threatens “an assault on the very fabric” of this one. We cannot hope to take part in the creation of a new world without threatening the present one. To continue thinking of ourselves as nonthreats by uncritically clinging to redeeming adjectives actively obscures the ontological menace that blackness represents not only to the police or to whites in general but to the coherence of the very category of “human.”

Ideologically, if we can accept that blackness bars us from humanity we can begin to move (not without resistance, of course) to other, more ethical, more sustainable ways of being. Moving beyond the position of aspiring to a humanity that was invented with the condition that we could never obtain it opens new possibilities for who we can be and what we can do.

There is a critical, if easily overlooked, distinction between being “defenseless” and being “unarmed.” The vast majority of black people are defenseless; they don’t carry guns or any other weapons. The impulse to prove as much is something akin to a waste of time. This does not mean we are “unarmed,” because in an antiblack world, blackness always has a (negative) power, it is always a threat. Remember that George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, told a Florida jury in the summer of 2012 that Trayvon Martin was “armed with concrete.” O’Mara, of course, meant that what is otherwise an unremarkable feature of the built environment becomes, in proximity to blackness, a tool for destruction. The black body is endowed with a mythical ability to weaponize any and everything (including itself) to stand in for the guns and knives that police and the public don’t give a damn if we actually have or not.

Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival” instructs that it is “better to speak remembering that we were never meant to survive.” To rely on redeeming adjectives so compulsively is to go astray from this remembrance. To be sure, every encounter between black people and state agents does not end in execution, but that does nothing to change the reality that each one can. The only conclusion can be that there are for all intents and purposes no “unarmed,” no innocent, black folks in America. The phrase, if well intentioned, is a misnomer. And its vilification of armed (literal and not) resistance is ultimately reactionary. Remember the New Jersey Four or the story of Eisha Love, all vilified and hounded by racist, misogynist, reactionary forces for deciding that they would not be murdered in the streets (in these cases by black men enforcing the hetero­patriarchal violence of the state). The liberalism that resorts to redeeming adjectives functions to affirm the idea that the wages of certain types of struggle against the state and those who do its bidding should, in fact, be execution. Redeeming adjectives make a distinction between black lives that can and cannot be mourned. They restrict our public weeping, our protest, our rage, for black lives taken in a state of defenselessness. Do black lives only matter, then, when they are proper, passive, victims?

The black Left has long been grappling with the reality that black respectability will neither save us nor clear our names. But to delve deeper is to understand that what respectability politics hinge on is the possibility of incorporating black life forms into a Western idea of humanity configured entirely on the dehumanization of blackness. Redeeming adjectives, then, are also a form of respectability politics. This practice of exclusively making martyrs of  “unarmed” black victims is an attempt to join a global vernacular that we simply have no access to in this patriarchal, anti-black hole called the world. And for all the spectacle-of-black-death-driven political currency such thinking garners, it pivots on a fundamental miscalculation. Are we defenseless? Almost always. Are any of us nonthreatening? Never. Are we overwhelmingly weaponless? Absolutely. Does that make us innocent? Absolutely not.

Consider this the case, less for armed resistance (although its arguments are undeniably compelling), and more for doing the intellectual spadework necessary to usher in the beginnings of a shift in thinking, a rupture with ways of seeing ourselves that accommodate the same structures which demand our deaths. Far be it from anyone to ignore the reality that black people carrying weapons draw the unmatched ire of the forces of white supremacy: They are killed swiftly. But perhaps the more sobering observation is that those without weapons are murdered with no less enthusiasm. Such is the nature of a patriarchal, antiblack world. The only way out is to end it, and we can start by terminating our dogged allegiance to redeeming adjectives such as the words “unarmed” and “innocent,” along with the liberal ways of thinking they represent. We have to interrogate what it means to only ennoble those who die with hands raised or backs turned. For when the apex of justice is mourning dead black people and crossing our fingers in the hope of that ultra-rare conviction it is past time to reformulate it, to envision it anew.

In the eyes of white (civil) society and those who subscribe to its logics, black people, even when weaponless, are always armed. To shy away from this is misunderstand the structure of white supremacy, at best; at worst, it is to obdurately champion a position that considers black death both necessary and proper. Our very existences are the crime, the threats, and we have no say in those historically overdetermined matters. But what we can decide is whether we will lament our place outside of and against white (civil) society, or whether we will embrace and brandish that place as the source of power that it is.

The moments where we no longer aspire to be innocent or human (like them, at least) are the moments in which we stand at the threshold of new worlds. There is power in understanding innocence as the foundation of complicity, and rejecting it so as to bide our time in the break of vernaculars of the human called blackness. There are benefits as well as costs to accept, however begrudgingly, that what Robin Kelley calls our freedom dreams do render us viable threats, dangerous outlaws, mortal enemies, not just to the police, or the man on the street, but to the modern world. If we take Macharia seriously and accept that black life forms are by rule barred access to humanity, alternative ways of being open up in its place. We may then no longer have use for redeeming adjectives, being instead empowered to liberate ourselves.