John Drabinski • September 20, 2016

I’m teaching a course this semester entitled Black Power, Black Panther. The course is pretty much what it sounds like: a course on the Black Power and Black Panther movements. There are plenty of similarities between the movements, and of course plenty of very intensely contested differences. More about those in another post.

We started with two essays outside that frame for the course: Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” and Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” From each, I wanted a few basic insights:

  • from Mbembe, I wanted students to see how in an anti-Black racist world, bodies are managed in large part through the production of killable populations — populations that lie outside the law, populations for whom extra-judicial killing is the order of the day and central to the fabric of our shared lifeworld. This has been the history of Black peoples, from the slave trade to colonial domination and segregation to current regimes of over policing and racialized mass incarceration. Sit with that, I said.
  • from Benjamin, I wanted students to start thinking critically about the meaning of the police, to think about them beyond common sense ideas of “helping to make us safe.” Instead, Benjamin describes the function of the police as a form of violence, making and enforcing and re-making the law. It’s a long argument. 
  • also from Benjamin, I wanted them to think about this term “justice.” Justice, in his essay, is what Benjamin calls “divine violence,” something that comes about as or at the end of the world as we know it, instituting an entirely new order. Thinking that dramatically about justice is counter-intuitive for most of us, because justice so often just means “giving people their due” or “being kind.”

From that, we’ve leapt right into a foundational text about violent resistance to anti-Black racism: Robert F. Williams’ Negroes With Guns. This short book is a collection of occasional writings, letters, statements, radio transcripts, and the like, all documenting Williams’ thoughts on armed self-defense. His work as an NAACP rep, then as a militant organizer, co-existed with Martin Luther King, Jr’s nonviolent movement. Both were Southerners and worked in rural communities (Williams mostly in Monroe, NC). That surely complicates our understanding of the civil rights movement! Already, at the beginning, a split on the question of violence.

So we started that conversation. It went as you’d expect: anxiety about guns, distaste for dying of all kinds, and exploration of justifications for violent resistance. That's the thing about Williams, he always insists on self-defense, not warfare, and his own descriptions of Monroe, NC in the middle 1950s justify it all. White mobs, organized by the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized Black citizens at every turn. Armed self-defense sounds a lot like survival.

Now, of course, there is the question of contemporary relevance. This course is a timely one, given the surge in awareness (social media is amazing) about police killings of unarmed Black people, and we started a discussion about what armed self-defense would look like today, what sorts of justifications, if any, there might be.

But I wanted to come back to Mbembe and Benjamin to push the issue deeper.

Is violent resistance an expression of the necropolitical order, an order in which our own sense of freedom and liberation comes from the capacity to kill? In this sense, violent resistance is a repetition of necropolitics, not a break from it. Perhaps that is the best we can hope for. Perhaps not. One thing is clear: our imagination of a possible political relationship and world is deeply affected by - I'd say even constrained by - necropolitics. It's how we conceive the freedom one has and the unfreedom another has, when one can be killed and one can kill. Think about it, "freedom struggle" these days is almost synonymous with the right to not die. (It's arguably always been the case. Another issue for another time.) When police kill with impunity, we start to think about the police as the executive arm of necropolitics and black Americans as the executed.

Or is there another way to think about violent resistance to anti-Black racism? Does Benjamin give us a language, however dramatic, for this other way of thinking? What if we thought of violent resistance to anti-Black racism as divine violence, as justice, as an apocalyptic moment?

This sounds overly wordy, but it's important to think about: does the idea of violent resistance to anti-Black racism upend, overturn, and completely disrupt what we know and expect from the world? Sure, there have been riots and there were rebellions of the enslaved. In each case, remember, the white world's response was the same: this can't stand, the entire social and political order is at stake. What if we take that seriously? What if in fact violent resistance to anti-Black racism would and could destroy the world we know - bracketing what sort of world it brings about, that is another question - and in that way was apocalyptic? There is a sense of justice there. Justice that comes about through the act of destroying what has no claim to continued existence, a necropolitical world.

In a certain sense, that notion of justice is exactly what is needed if necropolitics describes our world. Necropolitics describes a world in which Black people cannot truly live, but are instead suspended in a sort of perpetual state of postponed death. To act against that world is to destroy conditions of unlivability. There is justice in that. Destruction, yes, but also justice.

Which of course opens up many more profound, enduring, complex questions. And that's why we have a whole semester.