On Black Lives Matter’s abolitionist grammar, Palestine, and the general strike

The general abolitionist strike will continue to find ways to put pressure on institutions not to make an exception of Palestine
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The streets are filled with protestors led by the Movement for Black Lives, and their calls for police de-funding, the abolition of the prison-industrial complex, and abolition of the principles of white supremacy in many other institutions and disciplines are spreading like wildfire, empowering people to act in different ways and directions in their immediate surroundings, in their workplaces and in their organizations. I’d suggest that this situation as a whole should be viewed not only as the result of actions, but also of inaction – in other words, of the potentialities opened up when, due to the pandemic, so many people have found themselves unconstrained by their ordinary positions of productivity.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been experiencing something close to a general strike, perhaps the closest we or any of our generation have come to know. This is a radical moment, and at this point in time we should think about the picket line, and act to create it in different areas of activities. Such is the Hippocratic oath for architects not to build prisons, or the Tamara Lanier lawsuit to free the daguerreotype of Renty Taylor, her ancestor (seized from him when he was enslaved) from Harvard University and the Peabody Museum, or the call to stop circulate images of sexual violence against the bodies of their ancestors issued by Cases Rebelles, or the calls to stop circulating the video of the assassination of George Floyd, after millions were already on the streets and their voices demanding in uncompromising way accountability and police abolition had already become the placeholder for evidence that should no longer be posted. Photography though, is not about the world in which people go on strike, photography ought to continue to draw its picket line.

Photographic abolitionist imaginary cannot start or end with photographs of people on the streets. Rather than saying that public demonstrations are the ultimate manifestation of the body politic, we need to remind ourselves that the body politic is always there (even though many of its members are not be recognized as part of it) and it always manifests itself in different ways, many of them distinct from public protest. When its members are not taking to the streets together, the body politic manifests itself through its policed patterns of power relations. In line with the institutionally regulated forms and formations, members of the body politic affirm themselves in the positions that they are socialized – or coerced – into inhabiting, separated and classified along race, gender and/or class dividing lines, or through what I have called elsewhere the resolution of the suspect, or into the figure of the unmarked Man, the ultimate bearer of rights under the regime of white supremacy. Even in “ordinary” times, the streets are always filled with people, but their presence is marshaled into prescribed, familiar flows and arrangements. The variety of their assigned positions, constrained by clear rules of mobility and immobility, ensures that the relentless movement of extraction – which simultaneously yields accumulation and dispossession, production and consumption – will not allow this differential body politic to get out of control. It is this relentless movement of racialized capital that the pandemic has, to an extent, brought to a halt. Just to be clear – I want to stress here that a stop has not been put to racism itself, but rather to much of the production and consumption with which it is intertwined. In this space that was open, activities may not resume in the same way to serve the racialized capital.

The pandemic has led to a partial withdrawal from labor. However, in and of itself, the pandemic is not a strike. Being on strike is the imposition of the condition under which the meanings of a cessation of labor that were formerly foreclosed become imaginable again. The policies of lockdown, quarantine and social distancing, when combined with the undeniably insecure working conditions of those defined as “essential workers” (and who have been required to ignore or break all the rules others has had to follow to protect themselves from the virus) have created conditions similar to those of a strike. Both those who have had to keep working and those who have been forced to stop working are part of a potential general strike. The July 20th Strike for Black Lives is another rehearsal. This mass withdrawal from positions of work is, in itself, a surprising, unfamiliar and radical manifestation of the body politic that should not be dismissed, but rather paired with the presence of the masses on the streets. Once seen in combination with the withdrawal from work, these street mobilizations are no longer just another interval of public protest but, instead, become something greater.

Essential workers on strike

As many have remarked, with the assassination of George Floyd and the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed by the pandemic, racism has been revealed as the meaning of the pandemic. And, no less importantly, the general strike has been revealed as the meaning of the unproductivity of the masses on the streets, dislocated from their usual operative positions in the body politic. It is this pairing that has made it possible for Black Lives Matter’s abolitionist grammar to be naturalized in the language of millions. This shift has been so sudden that white institutions have felt compelled to issue statements cleansing them of their white-supremacist language of universalism. Make no mistake, these statements are often disingenuous, belated, and insufficient. However, they can serve as important starting points. Once such statements are made public, those who work in these institutions are collectively afforded the power to strike, to push these words beyond the screen and to use them to transform the institution in question. If, when the movement began in 2013, Black Lives Matter’s abolitionist and reparative grammar was met with attempts to imperially universalize it (“all lives matter”), the many who follow the movement today understand that this grammar is the picket line that must not be crossed. In other words, the many who are simultaneously outside their ordinary positions as operators of imperial technologies as they protest on the streets are now practicing this abolitionist-reparative grammar as proper grammar. Otherwise, would Minneapolis City Council members have gone beyond calling for individual indictments and police accountability to advocate the total defunding of the city’s police department? Would the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone have existed as a police-free neighbourhood where protestors could draft their uncompromising demands to end white supremacist school-to-prison pipelines?

BLM grammar consists in rejecting the universal political grammar that has, for centuries, normalized crimes against Black people and postponed the ever-pressing abolition of imperial racializing regimes. Abolitionist demands, agendas and imaginaries are neither new nor unprecedented: now, however, they enjoy the status of a general strike that allows them to be uttered as part of the only proper grammar. It is a grammar that enables language to become referential again, to make sense in a world shared by all members of the body politic. With BLM grammar, truth claims are once again possible: for example, that George Floyd is one of many Black people assassinated by police officers, and that the organization that has spawned and nurtured this mass killing for years should be abolished. Also, with BLM grammar, the temporality of truth claims is transformed: events that are described – in universal grammar – as sporadic, individual killings are recoded in BLM grammar as further episodes of a mass killing. The police assassination of George Floyd is not a dissociated event, but rather an instantiation of forms of violence that are reproduced across time and place, materialized in organizations such as the police and the military, whose shared logic is predicated on the existence of Black suspects whose lives can be snuffed out on the spot. The immediate and uncompromising attacks on public monuments are a symptom of this grammatical change. The toppling of statues of enslavers and colonizers puts a brusque end to exhausting and pointless conversations about what to do with such monuments, conversations that are predetermined by the grammar these monuments themselves impose. Once they come tumbling down, displaying a tiny portion of them for, let’s say, educational purposes would require the difficult work of justifying the presentation of such a physical slur in a public space. Such a decision would also necessitate a display that revokes the power of the monument to insult its spectators. What these toppled monuments do, however, is to highlight one urgent question that BLM grammar poses: what are the less visible monuments of the white supremacy that these sculptures celebrate? This is a question I’ll return to at the end of this essay.

There is another urgent matter that needs raising. The truth claims and anti-imperial temporality that have become possible once again through BLM grammar and the current general strike are not available everywhere. They are especially hard to pronounce and to hear in countries whose democratic regime is of the apartheid variety. I’d like to talk about one such place, Palestine, crushed on a daily basis by the state of Israel. (And, yes, I do insist on referring to Israel as a democratic regime, since our current democracies are nothing to boast about, and are all in some way based on a differential body politic. But this is a topic for another conversation.) A few days after George Floyd’s execution by police, as large-scale protests started to spread around the world, an Israeli policeman murdered Eyad al-Halaq, a 32-year-old Palestinian man from Wadi al-Joz, Jerusalem. For the Israeli regime, the murder of al-Halaq was a litmus test: would it provoke a response similar in scale to that of the murder of George Floyd? Well, no, it didn’t. So it was that Israel obtained yet further confirmation, both local and international, that it could go on brutalizing and extinguishing Palestinian lives as it has done incessantly since 1948, when its regime made disaster was installed. Those small protests that did take place were not seen as arising within the context of 72 years of unceasing struggle, but instead dismissed as a sign that only a few cranks could be bothered to say his name. The conclusion? Another Palestinian’s life could be taken. And so it was that, just a few weeks later, Ahmed Mustafa Erekat was assassinated at a checkpoint near Jerusalem. Like al-Halaq before him, he was forced to stop at the checkpoint whenever he moved from one point to another. However, on that particular day, he didn’t stop “properly,” according to the apartheid grammar inherent in the Israeli checkpoint system. He was shot several times and then left to die, bleeding out on the road for more than an hour. Israeli hasbara (propaganda) denies the world the chance to hear the names of the Palestinians its soldiers and policemen execute.

Justice for Ahmed by @shirien.creates

In 2015, after the police murder of Michael Brown and the assassination of 2,252 Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli soldiers the previous year, Noura Erakat, a professor of human rights law at Rutgers University, joined with journalist Dena Takruri in an attempt to say their names in solidarity in the video from Ferguson to Gaza and vice versa.

Palestinians and Black Americans shared a common abolitionist grammar and could speak to each other in the same language. As Noura Erakat put it at the time, “the point is not to compare oppression […] But the point here is that solidarity is a political decision on how to resist and how to survive in our respective fights for freedom.” This week, on Democracy Now!, Noura Erakat spoke as loudly as possible the name of her cousin, Ahmed Mustafa Erekat, whose life was taken by the Israeli regime for its own self-preservation (between the sea and the river), in opposition to the body politic of those it governs – half of whom are Palestinians. But even when Erekat’s name is heard, it is barely associated with the demands to abolish the regime that took his life in one of its routine operations. Unsurprisingly, though, these demands are heard by radical Black leaders who, from the very beginning, made Palestine part of the Black Lives Matter agenda. To understand why BLM grammar is rendered impossible in Israel, it is essential to remember that, under the Israeli regime, Palestinians are murdered not only as individual Palestinians – like al-Halaq and Erekat were – but also en masse, during countless raids and military campaigns, because they provide the “enemy” that justifies the Israeli army’s very existence.

Consider, too, the inflated police and army budgets, much of which is spent on international propaganda, intimidating and silencing cultural actors and institutions with allegations of “antisemitism”, and interfering in different countries to promote the introduction of legislation that would make it illegal to say Palestinians’ names using BLM grammar: in other words, to publicly state that Israel’s apartheid regime is predicated on the principle that Palestinian lives do not matter. A propaganda that also includes the use of state-funded education that, over the course of 12 years, turns children into soldiers for whom Palestinian lives will not matter. A propaganda that likewise encompasses the hasbara fellowships awarded to students around the world to further the Israeli cause on university campuses internationally, in an attempt to police the discourse there on Israel/Palestine and abort any effort to issue truth claims about Palestine. The recent attack you mentioned on Achille Mbembe in Germany is one of the latest examples of these Israeli-orchestrated attacks on anyone who dares say that Palestinian Lives Matter.

So it is that going on strike requires those who embrace BLM grammar to also find ways to amplify truth claims about Palestine. Outrageously, grotesquely, or tragically, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has issued a statement of solidarity with BLM, as if it were not one of the primary pillars of support for the state that is a monument to white Jewish supremacy and that blocks the way to a BLM grammar to establish the picket line that should not be crossed. For abolition to be achieved, people will continue to improvise different forms of going on strike as part of the general abolitionist strike and will continue to find ways to put pressure on institutions not to make an exception of Palestine, to say that All Black Lives Matter. If BLM provides the grammar, then keeping the general strike alive requires the uncompromising use of this grammar in all the professions and trades that people carry on, especially once productive activities resume.

Image: Decolonize this Space
Image: Decolonize this Space

With millions on the streets undistracted by the categorical command to produce and consume, those who usually produce photos or ideas – which also exist as commodities – hold the power to refrain from or refuse to deliver certain goods. And they should, whenever doing so would mean crossing the picket line of All Black Lives Matter grammar. There are many different ways for people to join the strike and render legible the complicity between the white institutions charged with the production of knowledge and culture and the law enforcement regime that has been shaped to protect private property. After all, these institutions are built on the foundations of centuries of primitive accumulation of Black and indigenous land, wealth and stolen labor.

Works of art are the ultimate incarnation of this centuries-old pillaging. To conclude our conversation, let’s fire up our imaginations by recalling some recent landmark cases of drawing this picket line, all of which are related to art museums. Firstly, there’s the letter written by 100 Whitney Museum workers, who discovered the connection between Warren Kanders, owner of Safariland, a firm whose teargas is instrumental in the violent repression of people across the globe, and their Museum, of which Kanders was a board member (to this day, he remains a funder for and advisor on arts and environmental initiatives at Brown University, where I teach, something that students continue to protest). Then there are the protests and sit-in strikes led by Decolonize This Place, which persisted for months and would not stop until the Whitney respected the picket line. And the work that Forensic Architecture, in collaboration with Praxis Films, pursued with photography in Triple Chaser. Photographs of Safariland teargas canisters were taught to go on strike and to refute the assumption that they represent a decisive moment, and that what they record is only discrete moments, fragments of discrete truths limited to what is captured within their frames. Here they were taught to speak in concert with other photos, to underscore the sense of anti-imperial truth claims. Triple Chaser took part in Kanders’ toppling, and is also participating in the as-yet unfinished campaign to bring down another white institution – the sacred status of “secret documents”, produced and archived as part of violence and still regarded as a primary source for scholarship seeking to expose imperial violence. In collaboration with with many activists who shared hundreds of photographs from the United States, Turkey, Peru, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Venezuela, Egypt, and Canada, the project assembles a choir of voices to sing out loud a truth claim about the role of museums in reproducing anti-Blackness and anti-Palestinianness.

An earlier version of this text was published in the form of a letter to Carles Guerra at correspondencias.fotocolectania.org.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, teaches abolition, political thinking and imperial technologies at Brown University. Her latest book is Potential History – Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019).

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“Does it bother anyone that the Black Lives Matter movement is seriously tainted with anti-semitism[?]” Is it? It seems to me that BLM is anti-Zionist, anti-supremacist and in favour of equality for Palestinians and the emancipation of occupied Palestine; I don’t hear or sense anti-Semitism from anyone I’ve interacted with, who’s actively involved with BLM. You say MLK conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism; he did. This doesn’t make him right or it true. Even good men… Read more »

Does it bother anyone that the Black Lives Matter movement is seriously tainted with anti-semitism as made plain as day in this article Black Lives Matter and the scourge of anti-semitism? “BLM would like you to believe that they, and the M4BL are the only addresses for supporting black people, and that their policies are representative of the majority of black people. This was certainly not true before BLM was founded in 2013, and it’s… Read more »