As Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the United States was poised to cross the threshold of 100,000 COVID deaths. We were grieving those who lost their lives to the virus, cut off from friends and family, gasping for breath alone in emergency rooms, nursing or private homes, detention centers, on the streets….We were holding our breaths as we read the daily toll of the pandemic, disproportionately taking Black and Brown lives. Far from being a “great equalizer,” COVID-19 reveals the virulence of structural racism.1 African Americans are dying of the virus at three times the rate of white people in America. As some official channels urged us to follow the protocols of social distancing and physical isolation in the interests of collective care (and others defied precautions in the name of rugged individualism), an officer in uniform sank the full weight of his body into the neck of a man who once said he wanted to touch the world. “I can’t breathe, man, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe sir….”. Chauvin’s impassive gaze at the iPhone recording the murder, surrounded by accomplices, bystanders, and witnesses, conveyed absolute confidence in his impunity. He looked as though he was snuffing out a life that did not register as human, or as a life at all. It is the expression we might see on the face of an arrogant hunter with his kill, or someone merely resting their knee on an insensate thing.
George Floyd was murdered by an officer of the state on Memorial Day—a holiday that honors those killed in service of the United States military, a festive time of beer, barbecue, and sales shopping. Originally a commemoration of Union and Confederate soldiers killed during the US Civil War, the holiday marks the end of the institution of slavery, but also of its local militias and slave patrols. Yet these militias and patrols continue to infect America’s policing procedures. From this year on, Memorial Day and its commemoration of America’s military will be haunted, if not displaced, by the memory of an unarmed Black man, crying for mercy, for breath, for his mother, ground into the asphalt by a white officer of the state. It is a lesser-known fact that Memorial Day was founded by Black former slaves in the spring of 1865. As we witness the repeated suffocation of Black lives, by the noose, the chokehold, the knee restraint, but also by dispossession, abandonment, incarceration, we are reminded of the complicity between wars within and wars abroad—encapsulated by the militarization of police forces—as well as between racial capitalism and global structures of destitution. Can we resurrect the origins of Memorial Day and its promise of emancipation from slavery and its afterlives, from wars within and abroad?
When Albert Camus’s allegory of fascism The Plague came out in 1947, Roland Barthes reproached the author for turning the historical violence of fascism into an epidemic rather than allowing it to exist as a human, political phenomenon. The figure of a plague depoliticized and naturalized history into a cyclical disease; it removed human agency and infected politics with epidemiology. To struggle against a plague is to face “a never ending defeat,” as the doctor-narrator puts it.2 “What would the combatants of the plague do if they confronted the scourge’s all-too-human face?” Barthes queried.3 The video of Floyd’s lynching laid bare the human face of a pandemic of systemic racism and police violence. We are at the dangerous intersection of a (not so punctual) pandemic and the longue durée of racialized violence, in which legacies such as slavery, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism—the plague’s all-too-human face—confront a bacillus that may never die or disappear for good.4 As Patricia Williams recently put it, “One maps on to the other in a double helix of grief and despair.”
Frontline and essential workers, disproportionately Black and Brown, fully grasp the dangerous intersection of race and public health. Already the most exposed, they still take to the streets bearing signs such as “Racial Justice = Health Care Justice” and “Racism is the Pandemic,” “Racism is the Public Health Emergency.”
Instead of heeding calls to shelter in place, citizens are embodying a historical understanding of the persistence of slavery, settler colonialism, and indigenocide by moving into the streets. People united across class and color lines continue to gather at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis for protests and vigils, putting their bodies at the crossroads of a racist epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic.
Around the world, they are marching, shouting, singing, taking down statues, denouncing the entangled legacies of racialized violence that have led to Black deaths at the hands of white police: Adama Traoré in France, Sean Rigg in the UK, David Dungay in Australia, and so many more….5 It is the global, and not only the American, experiment with democracy that, in the words of Rev. William J. Barber II, demands that we “listen closely and deeply to the uprising that is itself a collective gasp for life.”6
When we listen closely and deeply to the chorus of voices emerging from the protests, we hear impassioned, devastating, and visionary commentaries captured by cameras and iPhones. In what follows I’d like to pause on one such monologue caught on the streets in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Activist Kimberly Jones was out with filmmaker David Jones to interview people cleaning up the streets of Atlanta after a protest had burned down a Target and the College Football Hall of Fame. During a pause, she burst into an unscripted monologue about Black economic disparities that has since gone viral under the title of “How Can We Win?”
Jones begins in measured tones to explain what the protests and their attendant violence signify. She identifies different three categories of people who took to the streets after George Floyd was slain: protestors, angry anarchists, and (presumably Black) looters “who just want to get stuff.” While Jones does not condone looting, she redirects attention from what the looters are doing (destroying property) to why they might do so given the racialized structures of economic inequity built on destroyed bodies and the spectacle of consumer capitalism:
“People feel like their only hope and only opportunity to get some of the things that we flaunt and flash in front of their faces all the time is to walk through a broken glass window and get it….They feel like it’s their only shot. They are shooting their shot, by walking through that broken window.”
In a time of conspicuous consumption, amidst a pandemic that has deepened the chasm between those who can buy and those who cannot, Black looters are walking through shattered glass to snatch a piece from America’s heap of broken promises. They are making their move, scoring their hoop, hitting their mark, shooting their shot (the expression derives a time when guns only had a magazine for a single bullet), as militarized police forces armed with rapid-fire machine guns drive armored vehicles down their city streets.
On the previous night’s episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah parried the predictable refrain of “why loot?” with a provocative “Why not loot? Police in America are looting Black bodies.”7 Jones historicizes this looting as the dangerous intersection of white supremacy and capitalism, from the extraction of bodies and labor on plantations to the decimation of Black economic life in slavery’s unfinished aftermath. In a spontaneous and inspired pedagogical move, Jones analogizes American racial economics to a game of Monopoly:
“If I right now, decided that I wanted to play Monopoly with you, and for 400 rounds of playing Monopoly I didn’t allow you to have any money, I didn’t allow you to have anything on the board, I didn’t allow for you to have anything, and then, we played another 50 rounds of Monopoly, and everything that you gained, and you earned, while you were playing that game of Monopoly, was taken from you. That was Tulsa, that was Rosewood, those are places where we built Black economic wealth, where we were self-sufficient, where we owned our stores, where we owned our property. And they burned them to the ground.”
For four centuries the enslaved were fodder for a game that excluded them, living, working, and dying for white wealth. When they were dealt the cards and money to put some properties on the board, their communities were destroyed. They continue to be sent straight to jail without passing GO and without collecting $200. As Jones evokes the racial massacres in Tulsa (1921) and Rosewood (1923), sites of Black life and property that flourished despite the absence of reparations but were burned to the ground by white supremacy, her breath catches and her voice swells with rage and grief:
“So then for 50 years, you finally get ahead and you’re allowed to play, and every time that they don’t like the way that you’re playing, or that you’re catching up, or that you’re doing something to be self-sufficient, they burn your game, they burn your cards, they burn your Monopoly money…. How can you win? How can you win? You can’t win. The game is fixed.”
The lucid rage that Jones expresses is that “other kind of anger,” one that is “really a type of knowledge,” for Claudia Rankine: “Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.”8 Jones turns to toy money and plastic buildings to denounce the intersection of white supremacy and capitalism in the rigged game of wealth accumulation. Incidentally, the game of Monopoly was invented by a left-wing feminist, Lizzie Magie, to denounce the evils of capitalism, land grabbing, and the accumulation of wealth. Magie, whose authorship of the game was suppressed for decades, declared that it might just as well have been titled “The Game of Life.” This game of life is indissociably linked to the game of Black death: George Floyd was killed by police in front of Chicago’s Cup Foods, Michael Brown was killed by police at Ferguson Market and Liquor in Missouri (2014), Alton Sterling was killed by police in front of Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge (2016), and Rayshard Brooks was killed by police at a Wendy’s in Atlanta. The lynchings by state officials for what was perceived as theft, looting, or unruliness in corner shops, liquor stores, and fast food joints—lifelines for a dispossessed community—reflects and refracts that rigged game of Monopoly. The cops were called on George Floyd because he allegedly used a fake $20 bill to pay for cigarettes at Cup Foods, a grocery store run by an immigrant family of Palestinian Americans. The teenager at the till who notified the police about counterfeit bills was following standard protocol because failing to do so would have opened the possibility of the store being shut down by the city due to nuisance abatement laws.
“What is a Black man’s life worth? Twenty dollars?,” George Floyd’s younger brother Philonise asked the House Judiciary Committee. This cynical calculus of disposable life is entrenched in our nation, built on the extraction of Black labor and Black death. The necropolitical factories and fields still haunt the fiction of a seat at the table, the fake money and plastic houses on the playing board of our economy. The game does not need to be rigged; it was always already “fixed” beyond repair.
But for Jones, Monopoly remains the heuristic for understanding our current financial arrangements, which she portrays as our collective arrangements, as the social contract itself. When she unpacks the analogy, Jones gestures to a neighborhood shattered by protests:
“So when they say, why do you burn down the community, why do you burn down the neighborhood? It’s not ours, we don’t own anything, we don’t own anything,” she roars in protest, crossing her arms on her chest and releasing them in a gesture that evokes broken chains and broken promises. “And if the social contract is broken why the fuck do I give a shit about burning the Football Hall of Fame, about burning a fucking Target. You broke the contract so fuck your Target! Fuck your Hall of Fame!”
The social contract is commonly understood to be the sacrifice of individual liberties for state protection. As Jones sees it, the contract is grounded in consensus-bound rules, state enforcement, mutual protection, and economic access: “If you steal or if I steal, then the person who is the authority comes in and they fix the situation. But the person who fixes the situation is killing us, so the social contract is broken.” What kind of social contract enables guardians to serve as executioners in the ongoing looting of Black lives? What is the relationship between looted property, looted bodies, and looted life worlds? When Jones declares that the social contract is broken, echoing Trevor Noah on African Americans “watching that contract being ripped up every day,” we might ask whether there ever was a legitimate social contract given this nation’s history of chattel slavery, a contract that turned persons into property and continues to destroy Black bodies and their belongings, as their belongings. If the social contract is based on the theft of bodies and labor from a people that have been “propertized” and can be destroyed with impunity, then it was broken all along.9 Given the pervasive “sense of stolen tomorrows,” why not leap through the broken glass of Monopoly buildings and seize something, seize the day?
Jones challenges us to examine a social contract that has always been rigged, that remains grounded in property rights instead of human rights. The question she raises is whether a social contract is the same as a seat at Monopoly, with its rigged rules, its random cards, its values of buying, selling, trading, competing, extracting, exploiting, enriching the rich, dispossessing the poor, incarcerating, and killing. Can we hope for anything other than a fair shake at a game that is rotten to the core? If capitalist economics are necropolitics, who wins? Is there another way of imagining the tie that binds, a social contract beyond the rules of this game and the violence of its commerce?
“As far as I’m concerned they can burn this bitch to the ground. And it still wouldn’t be enough. They are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” Thus ends Jones’s intervention, with what could be taken as a call to flip the Monopoly board game over in a revolutionary program of destruction. These final words seem to call for burning the entire edifice of racial capitalism to the ground, including a Hall of Fame that celebrates African Americans’ physical prowess on college football fields while consigning others to the daily indignities that feed the penal system, and others still to perish under a policeman’s boot.10 As artist Clny powerfully raps, “This ain’t our home, burn it down. Burn it all down. Sometimes you have to burn it down to start over, to turn neighborhoods into community.”11
To the query “why burn it down?,” Jones along with Noah parries with a “why not burn it down?” If the promises of economic participation, consensual neoliberalism, and social protections are so broken, have never not been broken, then why not tip over the board, tear up the counterfeit money, and smash the houses. I do not believe that Jones herself is calling to raze the edifice to the ground. She was out on the streets of Atlanta interviewing African Americans cleaning up the ruins of the protest, citizens who had bought their own cleaning supplies to fix the city, and who expressed anxiety to her that the looting would hijack the narrative and delegitimate a global movement against systemic racism and police brutality. Jones later described “How Can We Win” as a spontaneous expression of pain and hopelessness.12 Yet when she walks away, the camera lingers on a brick wall between shop windows that are boarded up, tagged with “BLM” (“Black Lives Matter”) and “ACAB” (“All Cops are Bastards”). The graffiti that defaces city “property” is a visual reminder of what continues to kill propertized lives, and all that needs to be abolished for Black lives to matter. It introduces a moment of hesitation between defacement and clean up, between destruction and reform, and seems to point to something else.13
The final frame is of an exhausted Jones resting her head on a companion’s chest. The Black woman is following COVID protocols, wearing a mask, but clasps Jones to her and rubs her back as two bystanders look on, attentively, six feet away, as witnesses. This comforting touch in defiance of the virus, this silent embrace and support, urges us in turn to witness and hold on to Kimberly Jones’s speech in its implicit call for creation out of destruction: to listen to its words, but also its rhythms, its registers, its embodiment, its resonance with the shouts and murmurs in the streets around us. We need to “listen closely and deeply” to a cry of anguish that is also a gasp for life. The choreography of unruly bodies in public spaces, the chorus of fury, the rubble in protest’s wake, all illustrate how “rage can be crafted” as an “art form of politics.”14 They are signs that the racialized chains of our current arrangements are breaking, and that in the wreckage, a global collective is seeking alternate ties that bind. In the words of Claudia Rankine:
contracts keep us social compel us now
to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out
to repair the future.15
- Madonna and Andrew Cuomo have designated the virus as such.
- Albert Camus, The Plague (Vintage, NY: 1991), 128.
- Roland Barthes, “La Peste, annales d’une épidémie ou roman de la solitude?” Club Feb. 1955: 6.
- Camus’s conclusion was epidemiological and allegorical: “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good…it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests.” Albert Camus, The Plague, 308.
- Sean Rigg died at the Brixton police station in 2008. Adama Traoré died in police custody in July 2016. David Dungay, a 26-year-old member of the Dunghutti people in Australia, was held down by four policemen in the Sydney Prison Hospital in November 2015. 432 Indigenous people are reported to have died in police custody in Australia since 1991.Dungay’s last words, like Eric Garner’s, like Derrick Scott’s, like George Floyd’s, were “I can’t breathe.”
- Rev. Dr. William Barber II states that “George Floyd was being suffocated even before that cop finished the job. George Floyd was being suffocated by the classism and the racism and the poverty in this nation… Right now, in America with this movement there is love and truth and justice breathing, the American people are resisting the suffocation and resisting the death.” https://www.salon.com/2020/06/19/rev-dr-william-barber-ii-only-a-major-moral-revival-and-revolution-can-defeat-trump/.
- Trevor Noah: “Ask yourself why it got to you that much more watching these people loot because they were destroying the contract that you thought they had signed with your society. Now think to yourself, if you were them watching that contract being ripped up every single day. Ask yourself how you would feel.” See also Robin D.G. Kelley, “What Kind of Society Values Property Over Black Lives.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/opinion/george-floyd-protests-looting.html
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 30.
- Eva von Redecker, “Ownership’s Shadow: Neoauthoritarianism as Defense of Phantom Possession,” Critical Times (2020) 3 (1): 33–67. https://read.dukeupress.edu/critical-times/article/3/1/33/165500/Ownership-s-ShadowNeoauthoritarianism-as-Defense
- 220 African American players and 13 African American coaches are consecrated there. See https://footballfoundation.org/news/2020/2/13/chick-fil-a-college-football-hall-of-fame-to-celebrate-black-history-month-with-special-hbcu-panel.aspx
- Clny, “Slash and Burn,” https://open.spotify.com/track/3L8J5GPd66gfBbKmYqZWPr.
- In an echo of Kimberly Jones’s analysis, a “former bastard cop” responded to the horror of George Floyd’s face ground into the asphalt by indicting “a capitalist system that grinds people down.” See “Officer A. Cab,” “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop,” Medium, June 6, 2020. https://medium.com/@OfcrACab/confessions-of-a-former-bastard-cop-bb14d17bc759.
- Judith Butler and Masha Gessen, “Judith Butler Wants Us to Reshape Our Rage” (Interview), The New Yorker, February 9, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/judith-butler-wants-us-to-reshape-our-rage
- Claudia Rankine, “Weather,” The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/books/review/claudia-rankine-weather-poem-coronavirus.html
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