Protesters in Oakland mimic the position in which Oscar Grant was forced by the Police before being shot by an office on January 1st 2009.
Whether we talk about the war in Iraq or the murder of Trayvon Martin, there seems to emerge a legal means of justification for a country to invade another or for a white man to kill a black boy. I call this means “preemptive legitimate defense” insisting on its oxymoronic character that demonstrates its ethical and legal absurdity. Such a claim is revealing the contradictions of our era, what Slavoj Zizek denounces in the marketing inventions of decaffeinated coffee and beer without alcohol and their geopolitical equivalent: wars for peace. These contradictions emerge from the necessity for a majority of people in the Western World to maintain their way of life and to obtain an ethical justification for their political positioning. The notion of legitimate is therefore important: it involves a narrative whose consistency should be sufficient to be self-persuasive (the kind that makes us say that we should not give money to a beggar because (s)he is probably part of a larger network that is abusing her or him). The notion of preemptive also implies a narrative: an anticipated one — and therefore a fictional or speculative one — that would retroactively justify the defense. We find the paradox of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report here: if you know that someone is going to commit a crime you can arrest him (her) before (s)he commits it; yet, if you do arrest him (her) the crime has not been committed and therefore this person cannot be legitimately punished. The justification of a “preemptive legitimate defense” — of course, this is never presented that explicitely — is therefore always either hypocritical or delusional.
The two narratives that I was evoking above require a semiotic that would trigger them, or rather, that would encourage them. This semiotic is indeed corrupted by a sum of norms, prejudices, and expectations that apply differently depending on the concerned body (or population in the geopolitical case), its behavior and its fashion. In other words, if I think that a young black man, walking in a middle-class neighborhood while wearing a hoodie — see the excellent article “The Hoodie as a Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force” by Mimi Thi Nguyen on Threadbared — is up to something that would compromise the ‘peace’ of the neighborhood, then I will consciously or unconsciously wait for the first gesture that would semiotically appear as confirming my speculative narrative in order to trigger a “preemptive legitimate defense;” in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, to kill him.
This gesture is crucial as the irrationality of its interpretation is proportional to the prejudiced expectation of the body. In other words, when confronted to the Police for example, a white body who does not explicitly dissociate itself from the social norm by its clothing or behavior, is very likely be able to accomplish a broad range of gestures without involving a semiotic corresponding to a speculative danger for the concerned officer. On the other hand, a darker body and/or one that presents clear signs of discrepancy with the social norm would have no other choice than presenting an absolute legibility of its body in order not to be shot. That is the nature of nowadays racism and social ostracism: bodies — that includes their behavior and apparel — are socially interpreted through an ensemble of speculative narratives that involve different expectations depending on their relationship to the norm — by norm I do not address a question of majority, but rather of position in the relationships of power. This difference of the way bodies appear in society, how they voluntarily or involuntarily enunciate themselves in the public realm, and therefore how they are being considered socially, is well illustrated on the participative website We Are Not Trayvon Martin. I recommend its reading, even though I find some its entries problematic in the confessional that they incarnate, involving more the negativity of guilt than the positivity of a real involvement for change.