By Patrick Blanchfield
“Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.”
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology
“It is not hatred that is wrong, it is hating the wrong thing that is wrong. It is not anger that is wrong, it is being angry at the wrong thing that is wrong. Tell me your enemy, and I will tell you what you are. Tell me your hatred, and I will tell you your character.”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Victory over Vice
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is currently poised to approve House Bill 953, which the State Senate approved 33-3 last Tuesday, following a 91-0 approval in the State House. Known as the “Blue Lives Matter” bill, HB953 will extend the list of “protected classes” recognized by existing Louisiana hate crimes legislation to include law enforcement professionals and firefighters. In other words, present or past employment as a cop (or a prison guard, a traffic officer, etcetera) will now stand alongside “race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry” as a category of identity awarded special protection against victimization under the law.
Although Louisiana, like most other states, already penalizes people for assaulting police or interfering with their activities, HB953 will mandate up to an additional five years of jail for felonies committed against police and their property, up to six months for misdemeanors, and escalated fines for both.
This is new territory, both in terms of the immediate legal consequences and political landscape, as well as in terms of the deeper ideological and even philosophical significance of this development.
The legal specifics of how enforcement of the law will cash out, if approved, remain more than a little unclear, and as such, disturbing. Charges of “resisting arrest” are already routinely abused to retroactively justify unlawful detentions and excessive force: might people charged with resisting arrest in Louisiana now expect to face superadded hate crimes assault charges if the arresting officer decides they got too physical? In addition to ordinary vandalism charges, will spray painting “All Cops Are Bastards” on a parked squad car or the side of a police station now have identical legal status as painting a swastika on a synagogue or lighting a cross on someone’s lawn? And, most trenchantly, will holding a Black Lives Matter protest or occupation be enough of a “threat” or “public disruption” and generate enough “fear” on the part of police officers to justify bringing hate crimes criminal trespassing or terrorizing charges?
This last question isn’t an idle one. If you read their statements on the subject, it certainly sounds like Louisiana police are fearful, and the “Blue Lives Matter” rhetoric none-too-subtly suggests what they’re afraid of: developments in our current political climate, and specifically Black Lives Matter. As the head of the National Fraternal Order of Police has told press: “Talking heads on television and inflammatory rhetoric on social media are inciting acts of hatred and violence toward our nation’s peace officers. Our members are increasingly under fire by individuals motivated by nothing more than a desire to kill or injure a cop.” Never mind that, according to FBI data, 2015 is tied for the second-safest year in history for US police, with forty-one officers killed in the line of duty. And never mind that we can compare current data with, say, the period from 1969-1980, when more than one hundred police were killed almost every year, to reveal a clear and stable trend of historic lows. What matters is that cops, like a majority of the American public in recent polling, believe that there is a “war on police,” and a great many of them blame Black Lives Matter activists. Louisiana isn’t alone, either: numerous other states are considering such legislation, and there is a proposal in Congress for a similar national-level bill.
But this isn’t just “politics” in the sense of the media churn where pundits and sensationalist outlets will insinuate, for example, that Black Lives Matter is a “terrorist group” with ties to Salafist Islamist fundamentalism (although, as we’ll see in a moment, this trope is suggestive). It’s political in a more radical sense – it’s about our basic understanding of how rights, identity, vulnerability, and violence should function in our society. And it’s all about how we understand those questions in the twenty-first century American security state.
Let’s start with the obvious: the rhetorical co-optation. Like “All Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter” is an essentially reactionary formation: it depends upon the pre-existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose language and branding (so to speak) it transparently appropriates. But it doesn’t just react to and appropriate these things – it seeks to turn them back, weaponized, upon the movement that generated them in the first place. This is something other than the “argument” of the Internet troll who inevitably interjects, “By saying Black Lives Matter, aren’t you saying that other lives don’t?,” an argumentative derailment that is as obviously devoid from contextual nuance as it is syllogistically broken. Above and beyond tit-for-tat language policing, “Blue Lives Matter” advertises itself as the rallying cry of the people who will literally police Black Lives Matter protests – sanctioning their actions as they arrest, imprison, beat, and otherwise face off with unarmed private citizens on a decidedly uneven playing field. Given that the nucleus of the Black Lives Matter movement largely originated in reaction to the extrajudicial killings of black Americans by police in the first place, the implicit message couldn’t be clearer: by insisting that your lives have value, you devalue ours. The logical extension of this message – respect for “Blue Life” means supporting a status quo where black life can be taken with impunity – is so patently obscene that I hope even the most ardently unreflective supporter of our current policing system, whatever their race, would disavow it.
But just because that explicit formulation is socially unacceptable doesn’t mean the underlying structure isn’t tacitly accepted. And that underlying structure is a worldview whereby claiming rights to safety, visibility, and even life itself are understood as a zero-sum game, and whereby any change in the status quo represents a slippery slope towards existential threat. In a nation where nearly half of white poll respondents say that “reverse racism” is an equal or greater problem than discrimination against blacks, or that their “way of life” has “changed for the worse” since the 1950s, this perspective appears to be widely shared. Which is where another interesting feature of the Blue Lives Matter legislation comes in to play – the emphasis on gut over empirics, on police feeling unsafe over and above data to the contrary, and, most importantly, on the supposed moral and legal prerogatives of their perception of such vulnerability. American police killed 1,134 people last year alone, killing blacks at twice the rates at which they killed whites. Black civilians in the communities they police may understandably speak of living in an atmosphere of near-constant terror or trauma, but what the “Blue Lives Matter” slogan insists is that it’s the police whose victimization is most urgent. In the same breath as we mock “millennials” for their oversensitivity and supposedly unrealistic equation of their lived experience of vulnerability with the “reality” of the world, we then accord to police – who are not only safer but better armed than ever – unquestioning deference as to the primacy of their “fears” over and above actual data to the contrary.
The bitter paradox of comparatively powerful groups invoking the rhetoric of victimization in a bid for sympathy and (additional) special protection has all the features of what my friend, the poet Jennifer Nelson, brilliantly labels “fictimhood.” Fictimhood: the histrionic appropriation of victimization by the powerful that doubles down on their own security qua oppressors even as it robs those they victimize of the vocabulary they previously used to voice their own appeals for justice. “Our lives matter,” say the oppressed. “Well, actually,” reply their oppressors, “We suffer, too. In fact, we are the real victims. And now please stop resisting as we shove your pleas for recognition back down your throat.”
The specific claim to protected class status under hate crimes laws throws this dimension into sharp relief. Although reasonable people can disagree on the issue of hate crime legislation, one compelling critique of hate crime laws in general is that they single out particular kinds of violence as worthy of social condemnation while normalizing others, sidestepping what scholars Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski have described as the “the interdependent nature of hate violence and broader systems of power.” By localizing “hate” in acts of extraordinary malice, quotidian violence, exploitation, and abuse are flattened out, erased, and otherwise made issues for which ordinary people do not have to feel responsible. “The sleight-of-hand of the hate frame is that it invites people to believe the problem of violence directed against marginalized groups exists anywhere else but in themselves,” write Whitlock and Bronski. But in the case of police, who are empowered by the state to inflict violence on us our and our neighbors, the stakes are rather different. Indeed, the privileging of the category of “police” as potential victims starkly contrasts with the track record of how individual police officers who commit what common sense would suggest are clearly “hate crimes” actually fare in our criminal justice system. Consider, for example, the case of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was found guilty of stalking and raping at least thirteen black women. Holtzclaw never faced any hate crime charges, even though his methodical pattern of racial targeting was obvious (as the NAACP argued), and his misogyny was blatant (violence against women being one of those quotidian kinds of violence which is rarely, if ever, singled out as a “hate crime”). Yet now, in a truly perverse turn, we seem to be on the threshold of a topsy-turvy world where if someone were to punch Holtzclaw while yelling “Pig!” they might be charged not just with assault, but with a felony hate crime. Stipulating that police officers who are victimized for reasons other than their badge might well deserve redress under hate crimes laws (for example, if racially profiled out of uniform by their own colleagues), the idea that a group which has already enjoyed relative impunity can not only have their position protected, but sacralized on par with the defining characteristics of those whom it has traditionally victimized remains grotesque indeed.
And it is all the more grotesque because, at core, I think there is something else going on here. What I want to say is a delicate thing, perhaps an offensive thing, but something I think is true nonetheless. Not all identity categories are, as it were, created equal; or, rather, when we face the operations of power, not all appeals to rights based upon our constructions of identity carry the same weight. One of the justifications legal scholars invoke for hate crimes laws is that they are designed to protect victimization of people targeting them for “immutable” characteristics (race being the prime example). This logic is not without its own problems: Republican politicians, for example, have invoked the immutability criterion in efforts to block hate crimes laws from protecting victimization based upon sexual orientation, and when it comes to religious identity, the question of what immutability means grows even more thorny.
But although they may differ from each other in meaningful ways, identity categories like race, gender, and religion all seem of a radically different class than professional affiliation. If the Louisiana law goes forward (and it almost certainly will – Governor Edwards is the son of a sheriff and has promised he will approve it), for the first time in American legal history, holding a job will have the same special protections as racial, gender, or religious identity. One might be tempted to see this as a particularly perverse outcome of debates over “identity politics” and the pressures of neoliberal capitalism, such that employment is now elevated to a status on par with more fundamental features of human life. But the truth is that we’re not just talking about jobs in the abstract. We’re talking about a very particular one. Being a cop, firefighter, or other public safety officer will be the only profession given status as a class protected against hate – not teachers, nurses, or even military veterans (all of whom have been targeted and discriminated against financially, rhetorically, and otherwise). And the cynical logic behind this special pleading couldn’t be more transparent. Police, whose job should revolve around protecting the vulnerable, are increasingly being held accountable for abusing them instead, and have thus come to feel “unsafe” and threatened. Accordingly, they want to claim special protection of their own – all as a way of threatening the vulnerable while simultaneously tearing out from under them the grounds for theirs pleas for safety and protection.
And this is all the more twisted because, in truth, there is no such thing as “Blue Life,” or, if there is, its moral claims are of an entirely different order than the claims of black lives, or trans lives, or any other “lives” where a predicate adjective denotes a lived experience of acute vulnerability to the vicissitudes of power, and specifically to the boots, batons, dogs, tear gas, handcuffs, and bullets of people who wear blue.
But all this is so hard to put to words. When our own vocabulary feels so exhausted, our reality so warped beyond the pale, I find myself reaching for the vernacular in which I was raised, and which, for various reasons, has left me exhausted: religion. Although at this point, I basically believe in nothing, this past weekend, I wound up poring, with a group of loved ones, over a passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28). Setting aside our various theological commitments to Christ (which ranged from devout to slim to none), we found ourselves wondering – what does this mean?
Certainly, some identity categories could ideally be seen as, if not entirely isomorphic with or indifferent to each other, then at least capable of mutual recognition and happy coexistence. I am a Greek, you are a Jew, let us respect each other, and abide together. I am a man, you are a woman, let us live together in egalitarian peace. But: you are my slave, I am your master – let us acknowledge each other’s unique ways of life, and then let the status quo remain? I am the murdered, you are my killer – let us embrace our identities, I, dead, you, alive and free? As countless other commentators have observed, these categories cannot “coexist” with any moral coherence, and “respecting” their relationship as a simple matter of “differences” and equivalent value erases asymmetry and ratifies injustice.
But such are precisely the zero-sum terms by which our twenty-first century security state tries to organize our lives. I am the police officer who beats you and then mocks you as you rot in a cell; you are my collar, my quota arrest, just another piece of trash – let us “recognize” each other, and then I will clock out as you are left to die begging for care. I am the drone pilot sitting in an air-conditioned room in a facility in Maryland; you are the humaniform heat signature somewhere in Baluchistan whom our predictive algorithm has identified as a probable militant – let us acknowledge our common humanity before I press a button, launch a $70,000 Hellfire missile at you, and turn you into so much gristle and dirt.
If anything should arouse our suspicions, it should be the toxic rhetoric of universal humanity and mutual respect for “life” and “differences” when uttered by powerful and complicit people in the service of inhuman and dehumanizing institutions. Such charitable universality-talk only serves the interests of chauvinist particularity; invoking humanity, it cheats.
And yet: the concept of common humanity seems as vital to our moral dealings as claims to particular human identities are foundational for our self-understandings and sense of community. Without gainsaying the value of identitarian categories and our various historical experiences of oppression, struggle, and liberation along those lines, how might terms of identity which pit us against each other (along the lines of race, nationality, class, gender, more) possibly be overcome, or at least transformed, from what they are into something else, not through a messianic, theological sublation, but rather into some other mode of solidarity?
The German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt – a Fascist, but a brilliant thinker all the same – dealt with this problem easily enough: by acknowledging its limits and then owning its shortcomings as a virtue, a feature, not a bug. Paraphrasing his perspective, the circle of our human compassion can only extend so far. Our capacity to identify with one another is predicated upon our ability to abject others as enemies against whom we can oppose ourselves. As Schmitt saw it, the ideological buzzwords of modern politics are really just transformed theological dogmas: our fellow Law Abiding Citizens are united as a blessed community of the Saved by virtue of our opposition against the permanently Lawless and Damned. Our solidarity depends on scapegoats; it’s Us versus Them, and our lives “matter” only insofar as theirs do not. And civil order depends on agents who act in the name of the rule of law but whom the law itself privileges and shields from legal accountability.
The “Blue Lives Matter” turn simply takes this essentially Schmittian perspective to its logical conclusion, and with a cynical perversity perfectly suited to our contemporary neoliberal security state. If police choose to identify as a persecuted minority qua police, as “just human being likes the rest of us,” how dare we – who say we care about minority rights, about human rights – begrudge them? How dare we question whether “Blue Life matters”? Aren’t we the ones who say that human rights matter, that Black Lives Matter? We are either with them, or against them – and, if the latter, against ourselves. There is no time for fine-grained niceties, for “unrealistic” nuances. We are at war, in perpetual Wars – Wars on Terror, Wars on Police, Wars on everything – and there is no room to formulate new choices, no time to accept the established order on terms other than what it demands. Be grateful for what you possess and enjoy what luxuries you are given to identify as what you wish as best you can, says the State. This is the price you must pay to Be Safe and not be cast out amongst the undifferentiated, exterminable Enemy – abroad or at home. And if your feeling of safety is another human’s prison, or their grave, well, look the other way and move along. There for the grace of the State and the whims of its tragically persecuted agents go you.
There must be another way. Some way to preserve what is good in our investments in identity that does not ratify a domineering structure of inherited forced choices that mortgage our souls with each transaction.
I do not know what this way is; the best I can offer is a story, an absurd parable, if you will. Here it is:
The little boy plays. In his game, he is a soldier, a cop, a gangster. His toy looks much like a real gun, but the material on the original packaging scrupulously identifies that it is not one, and that the manufacturer disclaims all responsibility. Or perhaps it is not a toy gun at all. Perhaps it is a silver-colored candy bar.
A neighbor calls the authorities. She identifies him as possibly armed, and as a child. The first headlines will identify him as a grown man; after that, and until the next little boy, other headlines will use yet other labels.
An officer arrives, adrenaline surging. Perhaps they are in uniform, perhaps they are not. Perhaps they identify themselves, perhaps they do not. The officer yells, draws, fires.
“Fuck the police,” says the child.
The bullets hang mid-air.
“That’s hate speech, and has no place in civil society,” replies the officer. “I am mortally offended by your deeply wounding words.”
“I identify as not being in your crosshairs,” answers the child.
The bullets zoom back into the barrel, taking the powder with them. The spent brass cases fly into the chamber, reconnect with the lead rounds, and slide back down into the magazine, its spring gently pressing backwards to receive them.
The officer vanishes, and the little boy returns to play. There will be no headlines, and his games now have different heroes entirely.
Would that this were so.
This piece was prompted by conversations with Tressie McMillan Cottom, Adia Benton, Zoé Samudzi, SI Rosenbaum, Mark Wallace, and others; any infelicities, however, are my responsibility alone.
Patrick Blanchfield is Visiting Assistant Professor in Religion at Swarthmore College. He
holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.