Police, voice, subalterns

The Austin Police Department has started the summer off with a bang. On June 3, the day after the federal Justice Department, in an almost unprecedented action (and one pushed by black groups in Austin), announced that it would investigate the department’s use of excessive force in minority communities, a police officer shot to death Kevin Brown, an African American, after “an incident” outside of a club in East Austin. The man was shot in the back at a distance of 30 yards. Then, on Juneteenth, David Morales was beaten to death after the car he was riding in struck a two-year-old child in an Eastside housing project. Immediately after the incident, APD issued a press release, which was based on no reported information, stating that when the beating occurred “[i]t is believed there were 2,000 to 3,000 people who were in the area when the driver and Morales were attacked.” The specter raised, of course, was of thousands of black people celebrating the emancipation anniversary by marauding through the streets. Unfortunately, the information in the press release turned out to be incorrect, as it was a group of twenty people who attacked Morales, and they were not connected with the celebration. However, this wasn’t learned until after Austin became the focus of much unwanted national and even international coverage.

The mayor, city representatives, and the police administration had to admit, with properly grim faces, that the initial information they released was wrong. But what really perturbed them was not the racist assumptions behind the press release or that they, the city and the police, are seen as thugs and liars by the city’s black population, but that this false information tainted the image of both the police department and, especially, Austin. The Austin Chronicle, semi-official organ of progressive Austin and city government — which at this conjuncture are really the same thing — phrased it most indignantly:

Last week, much of the world was falsely told by sloppy, rushed reporters working for a myriad mainstream (i.e., white-owned) news sources, that an angry mob of black men beat a Hispanic man to death while thousands of black festivalgoers watched – and the central lesson here is […] the Austin Police Department’s poor minority relations!?

The Chronicle and progressive Austin routinely come to the defense of the police department when, as has happened four of the last five summers, it kills, or uses blatantly excessive force, against subalterns. Not entirely clear on why this is — why, for example, the criticisms leveled against Bush’s deployment of violence and fear get suspended when local government is doing the deploying — but I’d suggest it has something to do with the fact that the police department is essentially the only union in town and with liberals’ fervent belief in democratic institutions.

What interests me, though, is not the why but the what. After the Kevin Brown killing, the Chronicle wrote:

Even more troubling is the abrupt and radical polarization of the public discussion – long before any of us can be remotely certain what actually happened in the early morning hours of June 3. On the same talk shows, in the letters columns, on blogs and postings, or during the current Austin Police Department chief candidate forums, there is little patience and less middle ground. […] We need to wait, listen, and consider well the mixed precedents. […] The untimely death of Kevin Brown has its own particular circumstances, and the ongoing investigations should be completed before we can come to any conclusions about what went wrong and why. And even when we learn what happened June 3 – whatever the specific, circumstantial outcome – we will not be much closer to knowing how to prevent this kind of outrage from happening again.

For that to happen, we need to be able to talk to one another.

Leaving aside that the Chronicle attributes the “radical polarization” to the “public discussion” rather than to the actual police killing, what’s striking about this quote is its desire to still the voice of political expression, most specifically the expression of a subaltern population. Rather than argue against or simply dismiss the protests, the liberal/state tactic is to subvert them by making seductive appeals to reason and calm. The proper democratic voice operates by patience, deliberation, and compromise, while the subaltern voice tends toward impatience, rashness, intransigence, and spontaneity, often expressed through minor modes and minor media. Altering the voice of the subaltern to conform with the language of the state is a main task of democracy, and progressives often take this duty especially seriously.

Situated within the Chronicle‘s never-ending homilies about grassroots politics, about social justice and peace, about public ownership and duty, it can be quite jarring to read the barely concealed censuring not only of the mode and media of expression but of the content as well. But it shouldn’t be thought of as hypocritical (or, of course, as exceptional) for this. A progressive agenda, grassroots politics etc., operates wholly within the bounds of the state, and indeed is impossible without it, while a subaltern politics doesn’t necessarily do so, is not necessarily capturable by the state. This is the danger that liberal rationality can help guard against.

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2 thoughts on “Police, voice, subalterns

  1. Nice, esp this: “The proper democratic voice operates by patience, deliberation, and compromise, while the subaltern voice tends toward impatience, rashness, intransigence, and spontaneity, often expressed through minor modes and minor media. Altering the voice of the subaltern to conform with the language of the state is a main task of democracy, and progressives often take this duty especially seriously.”

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