The Necessity of History, the Tragedy of Aesthetics

When we tear down statues, it is an attempt to alter the trajectory of history. Not history as just “what has happened,” which we can never change as much as reinterpret. No, this is history as a great unfolding, as something that is taking place and will take place on one route or another depending on what is done in this moment. You can hear it in the reactions of the right. In their barely contained apoplexy, their cries of “you can’t erase history,” they are, however unwittingly, announcing that there is consequence to how that history is experienced in the here and now.

Aesthetics, particularly those that exist as part of public space, are never merely about how something is rendered. Symbols and tributes that are hegemonic enough cannot simply have the channel changed on them. The more all-encompassing an aesthetic is, the easier it can hide in plain sight, the more urgent it becomes to reveal their machinations and expose the possibility of ripping it up and starting again.

A book everyone should read (daunting though it may be given its density) is Tom Bunyard’s Debord, Time, and Spectacle. Summing up the book here in any detail that does it justice would take more space than I currently have available to me, but, briefly…

Bunyard examines the thought of Guy Debord, the primary mover and theorist of situationism. Probably the most referenced aspect of situationist thought is that of “the spectacle.” Primarily, this is understood through a media studies or anti-consumerist lens, and this version of it is best captured by slick advertising, the kind that is designed to paper over the inequities of a product or service by making us feel we have an emotional investment in it. The product is fun, it will fulfill you, so best ignore that it was made in a sweatshop on occupied West Bank land and that its CEO has his name in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book.

It’s a useful understanding on its own terms, but as Bunyard argues, it’s also exceedingly narrow. It siphons off art/culture/media from economics/politics/sociology, as if each general realm responds to wholly different laws. Bunyard excavates, through Debord’s study of Hegel, how the concept of the spectacle was a critique of all aspects of life under capitalism. In essence, the spectacle is full-spectrum, the ways in which culture, economy, politics, and aesthetics all conspire under the sway of capital to divorce the individual from history and therefore control over their own lives. It is not so much that media comes to replace politics as it is that politics becomes highly mediated, aestheticized, the illusion of being under our control so that our own subjugation is more easily consented.

In this respect, the toppling of statues is of profound importance. We might understand such acts as de/re-aestheticization from below. Or, bringing in Walter Benjamin, the way in which fascism’s penchant for aestheticizing politics is inverted by communism’s ability to politicize aesthetics.

In this framework, no artistic work or gesture is politically neutral. Any signifier that comes from a moment of uprising can be co-opted and rehabilitated by the establishment. But unlike some who see this as a reason to surrender the realm of aesthetic struggle, who insist such engagement is a fool’s errand, Bunyard’s argument necessitates we do aesthetics better, more collectively, attempting to get in front of detournement whenever we can, just as we always have to do with our understandings of economics and politics. Aesthetics are not divorced from these realms. Ceding them to convention can have serious implications.

The kerfuffle over the “Black Panthers Revolutionaries Atlanta Chapter” reveals in a painfully trenchant way how the spectacle, the aesthetic uncoupling of people from their subjectivity, plays out. It’s surely one of the most bizarre episodes of this current resurgence in Black Lives Matter. Pictures and reports of young mostly black women and men dressed in all black, wearing berets, and carrying semi-automatics at a BLM march in Decatur, Georgia two weeks ago went instantly viral. To some it was a sign that the spirit of black militancy had revived the most iconic black revolutionary groups in American history.

To others it was confusing. They seemed to dress and carry themselves quite differently from the anti-semitic poseurs of the “New Black Panther Party” that have been around for the past twenty-five years. But they had no web presence, nobody seemed to have heard of them. Some observers pointed out that their patches were not those of the original Panthers but of the 66th Infantry Division. That there were also photos of these Atlanta Panthers posing arm-in-arm with police (!!!) was just doubly confusing.

Then came the truth: the small group of armed Panthers were, in fact, actors. They had purchased the clothes and guns, and had shown up at the demo to, essentially, cosplay. All seem sincere in their apology, and going out of one’s way to denounce them seems a waste of energy. But the fact that remains that the whole sequence is utterly baffling. What could possess this group of young men and women, presumably in sympathy with the aims of Black Lives Matter, to do something like this? It would be one thing to attempt a refoundation of the Black Panther Party, however confused such an attempt might be, but this wasn’t that. These were people pretending to be Panthers, consciously choosing to do so. What’s more, they were doing it badly. Nobody who knows anything of substance about the Black Panthers would ever think any of its members would pose for a smiling photo op with a police officer. The cops, after all, were their most well-known and visible enemy.

There is at least a partial explanation in the fact that they are actors. I don’t say this as any kind slight or dig against actors themselves. The entertainment world applies immense pressure to conform to an ahistorical view of the world. I was told by acting teachers that the best actors know nothing about history, politics, or current events.

This is not unique to acting though. In fact it’s inevitable in the commodification of any craft, which is to say literally everything. The breakdown of skill into measurable and hyper-rationalized components removes each gesture and action from their context. Everything becomes an empty signifier. Flowing inevitably from this, events and history become performance, the blurring of the lines between actually making history and just, well, acting like you are. As a friend and comrade said, “I hate when Baudrillard is right, but Baudrillard is right.”

The flurry in Atlanta confirms this as a phenomenon that goes well beyond the ranks of the left, but it also presents a specific challenge for us given that it is our job more than anyone else’s to change history. There is nothing wrong with cosplaying or LARPing in general, but when the shape of this same practice comes to shape how you do politics, it becomes at best laughably ineffectual, at worst dangerous. The “best” are those who have read enough books about this or that revolution and think that all that is needed now is rote replication, a practice recognizable in any innumerable toy-Bolshevik group today. As for the worst examples, it is best captured by the practices of the Red Guards. They think they are recreating Shining Path; all they’re actually doing is the cops’ job for them.

There is, to be sure, a liberal version of this confusion, and it is one that most corporations are becoming very good at lately. Spotify and Netflix release Black Lives Matter selections and playlists, though they obviously won’t call for the abolition of police. Chase gives its employees half a day off for Juneteenth, but won’t pay reparations despite having demonstrably profited from slavery. That these companies are saying anything at all publicly has everything to do with the arrival of sustained mass protest, but they are also done out of cynicism, in the hope that appearances can be mistaken for substantive concessions.

If events are ultimately the real content of history, we can take heart in the fact that it didn’t take long for the Fake Panther story to fall off people’s timelines. They are replaced by far more consequential, significant, history-making stories. Not just the bringing down of statues (and the profound transformation it brings to public space), but the move by teachers unions to ban cops from schools, or by labor councils to kick out police unions. Or the Supreme Court rulings which bans the firing of queer and trans folks, or blocking Trump from ending the DACA program. In the grand scheme, they are small victories, trivial compared to the wholesale abolition of police or the closure of the ICE detention centers. But they will also make material difference in people’s lives, how they view and experience the world, their notion of what it is to fight and win. And they also came courtesy of a moment of mass protest.

Which brings us back to the toppling of statues. What exactly is it that makes this wave so different from cosplaying or the corporate push to co-opt? For one thing, bringing down a statue has less to do with how we change ourselves and more to do with how we change ourselves by changing our surroundings. It is a radically ontological act first and foremost, effectively acting upon the unique and specific role that aesthetics plays in politics.

When our public lives are lorded over by celebratory likenesses of slave owners, genocidal colonists, and murderous eugenicists, it enforces a kind of floating spatial apartheid. Even outside of redlining and other forms of physical segregation, in spaces that are supposedly neutral, their presence affirms the dominance of one version of history over another. The “great men” of a society killed, tortured, raped. And when enough people grasp this, particularly people descended from those who were abused by these men, then they become less welcome in this space.

To reject and reverse this ethereal domination, to tear down these specific symbols, is not merely symbolic. It leaves a hole in the perceived order of a space, a hole left by the people who did the toppling. Ponder that hole long enough, and you start to wonder what other parts of everyday life are informed by exploitation, by vicious repression. If you brought down this part, what’s to stop you from doing so with the others? What might you replace them with?

From Plague to Rebellion

“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.” – CLR James

Already the air is febrile, anxious, begging to move. It is easy to find the demonstration, with so many walking in the direction of the park. Everyone wears masks. Most wear black, many carry signs: “George Floyd did not deserve to die,” “ACAB,” “Fuck12,” “Defund police,” and, of course, “Black Lives Matter.” A police helicopter hums overhead, the first of at least five we will see over the next few hours.

It’s Saturday. Six days since George Floyd died, the wind squeezed out of him by a vicious, petty cop. Six days since Floyd gasped those haunting words, “I can’t breathe.” A week ago, the defining factor of American politics was the pandemic that still has most of the world – including the US – in its grip. Now it’s different, strange, new. What started as protests in Minneapolis became mass protests, then showdowns with cops, then looting of a big box store, then finally the burning of a police station. Young people – mostly black, but also Latino, white, and others – jump, cheer, dance, their fists in the air, as the flames consumed the precinct of the officer who killed Floyd.

It moves. Other cities are now ignited. New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, Phoenix, Louisville, Los Angeles, so many others. The return of urban rebellion to LA is auspicious. There are inevitable comparisons with the uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Also Ferguson and Baltimore. This is on a far more massive scale, far more widespread, not isolated to just one city. It is the largest nation-wide urban uprising since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. LA is one of many today.

In each city, George Floyd is naturally at the front of people’s minds, but so are other victims of police violence and racism from the past several years. Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home in Louisville, two weeks before Floyd’s death, while police served a “no-knock warrant.” Laquan McDonald, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, countless others.

In each city, police attempt to drive protesters back indoors, inflaming outrage and provoking pushback from protesters. Many times, the cops are driven back. Urban space is, at least temporarily, reclaimed.

The march today is touching off from Pan Pacific Park. Perched on the southern edge of the Fairfax District, it directly abuts the famed Grove shopping center. Other high-end shops and boutiques are peppered throughout the district, and the average price of a home around the area is $2 million. Beverly Hills is not far. Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles and founding member of the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter will later tell LAist that the choice of venue is “very deliberate.”

“Going to Pan-Pacific Park was absolutely about letting white folks who are from more affluent backgrounds understand or get a little glimpse of what we experience as black people every day,” says Abdullah. “White folks who are from affluent backgrounds aren’t going to experience that, but at least they can experience the frustration of not being able to make it through traffic. And so those are the kinds of things that we try to do when we go to affluent spaces that way.”

There is a remarkable sense of fearlessness among demonstrators. Entering the park, several tables are set up by high school students and community groups. Some handout free food and water. Others are handing out masks, while still others are giving away bottles of water and baking soda, for use in case of tear gas. Very few of us are shaking hands or otherwise touching, but we are talking and introducing ourselves to each other. Given that we have spent the past two months socially isolated – either shuttered indoors or only traveling outside for our “essential” work – there’s a certain thrill to being around other people.

At the baseball field where the starting rally is held, people climb the cage at home plate to listen to the speeches and hold up their signs. There are now two police choppers overhead, as well as a small drone buzzing around, ten or twenty feet above our heads, adding to that hackneyed and tiresome feeling of cyberpunk police state.

On Friday Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, was arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers who stood by and watched are still free. It is an attempt to placate, to convince protesters that they have won and therefore consent to the “bad apples” thesis of police brutality. It does not work.

“We have a right to our rage,” Abdullah tells the crowd at the park. “We have a right to our rage and them arresting one officer and then saying that’s justice, that shit doesn’t settle well with me. And it’s about those four officers who killed George but it’s about all these officers including the ones who are standing in our midst.”

By the count of Black Lives Matter LA, police have killed 601 people during the Democratic administrations of mayor Eric Garcetti and district attorney Jackie Lacey. Lacey, the first black district attorney in the history of Los Angeles, has yet to prosecute a single cop. She has repeatedly promised to meet with BLM and the families of victims, but has yet to make good on that promise. Over the past few years, BLM has escalated its visible tactics against Lacey. They have held weekly vigils outside the city’s Hall of Justice and crashed fundraisers for Lacey. They have even showed up at her house, the day before elections in March, only to be greeted by Lacey’s husband pointing a gun in their faces.

That was three months ago. Since then, forty million have lost their job. The real unemployment rate is predicted to surpass twenty percent in June. Aided by Donald Trump’s blustering incompetence, Covid-19 has killed over a hundred thousand people in the US. This is more Americans than died during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the entire “War on Terror” combined. Hospitals have been pushed to the breaking point. With no meaningful investment in healthcare or the social safety net, the White House has pumped trillions into the stock market, into banks and airlines and the luxury cruise industry. Aid for ordinary people has thus far been limited to a single $1200 check (unavailable to the families of immigrants) and $600 supplemental unemployment insurance through the CARES Act, expected to expire in July.

With no expectation of a vaccine anytime soon, and with very few safeguards in place, most states are reopening their economies. For the past two months we’ve listened to unhinged public officials and elected representatives tell us we should be grateful and eager to die for the economy. Herds of braying far-right psychopaths have egged them on, strutting around state capitols with fascist signs and AR-15s.

Trump has called the high number of Covid cases a “badge of honor” for the US, said that we should expect as many as 3,000 deaths a day. The reopening of states and businesses will effectively kick millions of workers off unemployment and force them to work in conditions that are literally contagious and deadly. The danger is amplified for black and brown workers, disproportionately represented in low wage work, the public sector, and the service sector, all of which have either been working through this pandemic already or are now being pushed back to work. If you want to know what it looks like when poor and working people have nothing left to lose, this is it.

It would be a mistake to view the fallout from the pandemic as altogether separate from police racism and brutality. There has always been a highly racialized necropolitical calculus in American capitalism, formulae by which it can be determined who is expendable and who is not. See, for example, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s frequently referenced definition: “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” All Covid has done is bring this out into the open.

Speeches wrap at 1pm, and the march starts. By now the crowd is probably 20,000 strong. We flood 3rd street, just south of the park, and head west. We are all angry, fed up, but also looking out for each other, knowing that it very likely is going to go down and that when it does we will need to have each other’s back.

Very few are outwardly fearful. Protesters break out spray-paint cans and start tagging street signs, shopping centers, luxury condos. Even buses and postal vans are tagged as their drivers lean out the window to show support, willfully looking the other direction as their vehicles are scrawled with slogans. “RIP George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe,” “ACAB,” “Fuck the police.” Considering how often youths of color are targeted, even killed by police for being caught drawing graffiti – from Michael Stewart to Israel Hernandez – this is significant. It is being done in broad daylight, and can only be interpreted as an act of extreme defiance.

When we have marched about a mile and a half to the corner of 3rd and La Cienega, we stop. We are in front of the Beverly Center, an upscale shopping mall with stores for Fendi, Prada, Gucci, and other expensive brands. Through megaphones, organizers ask us to take a knee. We yell, in unison, “I can’t breathe!”

We stand up and turn north onto La Cienega. Chanting continues. So does the tagging. When we turn back east onto Beverly Boulevard, there is a noted shift in the crowd’s mood. After a few blocks we see the first line of police. They tell us to go back the way we came, and we comply.

A comrade calls a member of the small group I’m with. He’s in another section of the march, back at 3rd and Fairfax. There, police officers are firing rubber bullets at a crowd of demonstrators with their hands in the air. A few minutes later, an unmarked police car drives through a crowd of people taking a knee. The cops have officially gone on the offensive.

The march splits. As our group heads back going east on Beverly, we start to see billows of smoke. Windows are busted along the high-end shopping district. Same at the Beverly Center and the Grove. Tear gas is launched at crowds of demonstrators, with some hurling the canisters back at the police lines. As we keep going up Beverly, we find lines of police cars, still burning.

Then, a convoy of police cars, sirens blaring, heads toward us. We think they are headed for our contingent, but when we look closer, we see a huge crowd running behind them. This is another fragment of the march, possibly the one fired on just twenty minutes earlier, that has circled back around. After the cop cars pass, we run to join them.

“Did you chase them off?” we ask. Several reply: “Hell yes.”

We later learn this is half true. Some reports have the cops fleeing because they were unable to stop the wave of people, others that they were needed at Beverly Hills. The largest remaining contingent of the march – still several thousand strong – is marching on Rodeo Drive, chanting “eat the rich.”

Later that evening, the mayor imposes an 8pm curfew. He announces the closure of all public Covid testing facilities through the weekend. On Monday, Los Angeles County does the same. Official excuses are concerns for public safety and the like, but it is hard to see it as anything other than punishment, particularly given the disparity in cases among black and brown communities. Similarly, curfew notices are sent out with little warning, with public transport shutting down almost immediately, leaving many people – again, disproportionately people of color – stranded.

And yet, the stories from around LA and the country are the same. The marches are peaceful before the cops intervene. The only way to make this untrue, the only way to paint protesters as responsible for violence, is if one conflates violence with the destruction of property, a durable trick of bourgeois morality.

There has already been so much said regarding property destruction during this uprising. Most of it, at least coming from the media, has been simpering moralistic dreck. Protesters can read between the lines. The shrill denunciations of smashed windows and stolen merchandise are an extension of the arguments used to put people back to work during a pandemic: “If you don’t do as we say then you are worth less to us than what you should be producing.” This by itself is enough to justify the looting, regardless of who struck first.

At midnight, the National Guard arrives in Los Angeles. Same in several other cities. The same National Guard that somehow can’t be mobilized to distribute testing, water or medical supplies during a pandemic.

On Monday, news breaks that Louisville police have shot and killed David McAtee, a black man who had been providing protesters with food. The police chief is immediately sacked. In Omaha, Nebraska, the owner of a bar shoots and kills a 22-year-old black demonstrator. The county announces that the bar owner will not face charges. In Philadelphia and Chicago, there is news of armed white vigilantes looking for looters, with the blessing of the cops.

In Washington, DC, battles between protesters and cops in front of the White House become so pitched that Trump retreats to an underground bunker designed for shelter during terrorist attacks. The next day, cops tear gas protesters so that he can cross the street and hold up a bible in front of the church that hates him. He plans to invoke the Insurrection Act, deploying military to disrupted cities. This would be the first time that act has been used since the ’92 uprisings in LA. He tweets that Antifa is to be designated a terrorist organization, criminalizing any dissent that smacks of anti-racism, anti-fascism, or anti-capitalism.

Neither, it turns out, is actionable. In the case of Antifa because Trump lacks the legal authority and in the case of the Insurrection Act because the military brass has publicly lined up against the idea. Rank-and-file troops are already exploring legal recourse if they refuse to go point weapons at their own communities.

Whole swathes of government, state, local and national, are caught on the back foot. In the following days, the other three cops who stood by and watched while Chauvin killed Floyd are also arrested and charged. Minneapolis city council considers disbanding the police. Riots, it seems, work.

This is a volatile situation. It is also one that has produced an unanticipated level of solidarity and support with the movement for black lives. It is obvious to sectors of society well beyond the radical left that the police in America are out of control, far too militarized, clearly racist and quick to use deadly force. Owners of ransacked small businesses and restaurants are supporting the protesters. “We can rebuild,” they say, “but George Floyd cannot be brought back.” Reality TV stars – people whose job it is to be politically inoffensive – are posting Angela Davis memes. Even major corporations – including Target, one of the first major stores to be looted in Minneapolis – are releasing expressing support for BLM; a cynical and opportunistic move for sure, but one that reflects how dramatically the ground has shifted.

This means that there is clear room for the movement to spread, evolve, capture other spaces physical and political. Bus drivers in Minneapolis, New York and Cincinnati have refused to transport arrested protesters on their buses. What other cities can replicate this? What role can teachers and their unions play in demanding that their school districts follow Minneapolis terminate their contracts with cops? What links can be fostered to the ongoing workplace and rent strikes across the US?

The idea of this movement deepening, spreading, throwing open new doors of possibility, contrasts with recent history. The neoliberal era – which we may or may not be exiting now – has shown a talent for isolating, co-opting, and fizzling out movements, with those who build them left wondering how to ignite wider layers in conditions of demoralization.

Compared to this, we are very much in uncharted waters. This current moment has presented people with a distinct and unfamiliar feeling: the freedom of being ungovernable. Whatever happens in the coming days, weeks, months, it is not a feeling easily forgotten.