Black Geographies of Quarantine: A Dialogue with Brandi Summers, Camilla Hawthorne, and Theresa Hice Fromille
This dialogue is the first installment of the series, Dialogues on COVID-19 and Racism, by UC Santa Cruz Science & Justice Research Center’s Theorizing Race after Race (TRAR) working group. This is part of an ongoing effort to develop frameworks for grappling with race and racism in this purportedly “post-racial” era. The COVID-19 pandemic provides particularly striking examples of the ways in which a post-racial moment has not yet come to pass, undermining a teleology already disrupted by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While the pandemic is replaying old narratives in new guises, we contend that it also affords a real-time global critique of narratives of race and science. Dynamics of COVID-19, and narratives about it, differ across national, state, city, and zip code lines. Placing these differing narratives in conversation, we suggest, disrupts 20th- and 21st-century epistemes that have clung strongly to narratives of race and pathology, race and biology. To make these differences manifest, and to develop a critique that attunes us to the racial justice questions of this moment, in this forum TRAR is curating a series of dialogues between scholars working in different geographic and political contexts about different themes at the intersection of COVID-19 and racism—from the politics of numbers and race-based data collection, to questions of race, space, surveillance, and quarantine.
Quarantine functions through the imposition of limitations on mobility for some, while simultaneously compelling others (e.g., “essential workers”) to move. But far from pertaining solely to public health incidents, the control of mobility itself is a central feature of the American racial capitalist state. Insights from the burgeoning field of Black Geographies teach us that the production of space is also always linked to the production of race. Blackness has historically been tied to particular frameworks of (im)mobility–seen as either bounded within degraded space, or as perpetually uprooted and endlessly mobile. Indeed, as Simone Browne argues in Dark Matters (2015), our modern technologies of surveillance have evolved from practices developed to regulate the mobility of colonized and enslaved populations. This is why, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Brandi Summers asserts that Black America already knows a great deal about quarantine: “One might even consider the black experience as a kind of never-ending quarantine,” she writes.
In a lecture entitled “Black Skin, White Masks,” Ruha Benjamin reminds us that the coronavirus “is not simply a biological entity, but a biopolitical reality.” Taking her contention seriously, how are new forms of racist enclosure and containment being produced in a context of public health crisis–even when public health interventions are supposed to function as tools of care? In other words, how does the pandemic help us understand the site of struggle where biopolitics and necropolitics meet? In “The Unmattering of Black Life,” for instance, Kimberlé Crenshaw notes that public health officials have blamed racial disparities in the COVID-19 death rate on Black diet and lifestyle choices; at the same time, right-wing pundits have argued that Ahmaud Arbery would still be alive had he just stayed home. What might this tell us about the convergence of public health, spatial politics, and policing? Are the emergent racial geographies of the COVID-19 pandemic a manifestation of (to riff on Naomi Klein) a new kind of “disaster racism”?
In this dialogue, we engage these questions via abolition, freedom, and marronage; the possibilities of mutual aid as resistance against surveillance, capitalism, and isolation; the stakes of data collection in the “mattering” of Black life; the politics of masking, (in)(un)visibility, and surveillance across both public health and protest; the spatial aesthetics of Blackness in public space; and the imaginative resources necessary to meet our tumultuous times.
Recorded July 2, 2020 and transcribed by Aitanna Parker
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Theresa Hice Fromille: How do you understand the relationship between freedom and mobility? How do we see struggles over freedom also manifesting as struggles over mobility in our current moment? And when we juxtapose uprising against anti-Black police violence with predominantly white protests against shelter-in-place orders, what can this tell us about the racialization of mobility and the mobilization of freedom itself as a political category? How does this also show up in the media, especially the discourse around “paid protestors” and “outside agitators”?
Brandi Summers: I think there’s a lot in that question, especially within the context of the pandemic. Freedom and mobility are two categories that are definitely mutually constitutive, but then also very much framed around whiteness—the privilege of whiteness to be able to move, to have the freedom to move. It also has us think meaningfully about the importance of capital, and preserving white capital, in this moment. The idea that we should open up our states and allow the market to redeem itself so that people can go shop and consume really speaks to this privilege. We’re not necessarily thinking about people’s health; we’re not thinking about community. We’re really privileging white individuals to essentially spread the disease. That’s meaningful as we think about multiple instances of anti-Black racism, because we’re seeing people in the streets who are protesting, and there was not an explosion of the virus in these different communities. So on the one hand, we have folks going to bars and all of a sudden, there’s this outbreak of the virus. And on the other hand, we have hundreds of thousands of people in the streets worldwide, and we don’t see this same explosion of cases. I definitely think that this moment again is intensifying the relationship between unfreedom and immobility.
Camilla Hawthorne: Brandi, what you just said is making me think about what’s happening in Santa Cruz right now. The county has just decided to reopen the beaches, and they very explicitly said that they did this because they couldn’t stop people from going to the beach. It’s very interesting at this moment when the police are continuing to make a case for their existence, and yet they cannot actually stop people from going to the beach in the middle of a public health emergency. I think this raises some really important questions about the necessity of police. And the issue of Santa Cruz opening up the beaches also sheds light on another dimension of this paradox of freedom and mobility. A friend of mine pointed out the fact that the 4th of July weekend is coming up, and people who work in the service industries here in Santa Cruz are in large part are coming from places like Watsonville. These are service workers, essential workers who are compelled to move—a very different kind of mobility than “I want the freedom to be able to do retail shopping and go to the beach.” It’s very likely that after this 4th of July weekend, we are going to see a COVID spike in poor communities of color because people were compelled to go to Santa Cruz to provide leisure services for holiday weekend beachgoers.
I came to these questions of freedom and mobility as a graduate student in a geography department, trying to figure out what it meant to study race and Blackness and geography. I wanted to understand how the production of space and the construction of race are intertwined. Why is this not something that we talk about more often in disciplinary geography? Racial theories are also theories of space. Kant, for instance, was a geographer; there is a long, Enlightenment history of mapping people and cultures onto bounded place. Or Hegel—he thought that the only groups that could become a part of World History were the ones who could overcome the constraints of place and physical matter to ascend into the realm of Spirit. And for Hegel, who couldn’t do that? Africans. So there’s this long-standing idea that we’re still grappling with—of Blackness is always either bounded in place, unable to overcome the constraints of matter, or alternatively as endlessly rootless and mobile. Of course, rootlessness isn’t in and of itself a bad thing—Katherine McKittrick talks about how the “nowhere” Blackness is actually quite powerful as a political formation. But in the context of what Liisa Malkki calls our sedentarist metaphysics, where your identity has to be bounded in place or else you become an aberrant, pathological subject, we have to think about the interplay of mobility and status. And we can’t make sense of this without race and gender.
THF: A new awareness of anti-Black police violence is leading many people to join the call for the defunding of police departments. And although radical Black leaders have long insisted on the dismantling of the police, in what ways do you think this demand is being newly invigorated? And what challenges do you foresee for its implementation? How might an attention to the defunding of police departments aid the movement for prison abolition?
BS: What we’re seeing as it relates to federal policy, or at least conversations among members of Congress, is reform—not necessarily about defunding or abolishing the police. So it’s as if activists have to say “defund” or “abolish the police” in order to get some kind of movement in terms of federal or national policy. But I don’t think they’re recognizing the ways you can’t reform the police. It’s actually resisting the reality, and not taking into account the history of how the police state came to be. There is this way in which talking about reform enables us to pretend like defunding or abolishing isn’t a reasonable solution. And so while I think it’s important that we’re talking about it now, the reform language is what’s scaring me the most. At first, I was really excited to see the ways in which people were understanding racialization as it relates to the police and policing. If we’re imagining all the ways in which surveillance and policing impacts our society, it’s overwhelming. And that’s when you’re finding places that are spending upwards of 50, 60% of their general fund to support police departments.
Where there’s potential is recognizing the ways that racial capitalism is the mode through which we can understand how capitalism functions, and that’s a term that hadn’t come up before in the mainstream media. So I think that as it relates to understanding the reach of the police state, there’s real potential for us to see that abolishing doesn’t necessarily lead to violence. We are already experiencing a level of violence that is not being accounted for by state leaders. I’m hopeful that as we continue to talk about it, as we continue to provide solutions and suggestions and data, because the data supports it, that we’ll be able to make a move.
CH: That resonates so much with the work that’s happening here in Santa Cruz. Like most cities, policing makes up the largest part of the local budget, with about half of it dedicated to patrolling—which in practice means the harassment of poor Black and brown people. I do think that there is something really remarkable about this moment, especially compared to the uprisings of 2013–2016. I’m thinking about what Angela Davis said recently, when she was in dialogue with, with Herman Gray, Robin Kelly, Gaye Theresa Johnson, and John Kun: during the first wave of Black Lives Matter uprisings, there was even more pushback against the idea of saying “Black Lives” versus “All Lives,” and among activists there was a discursive framing that we have to put killer cops in jail. And now, we are seeing a mainstreaming of abolition. Of course, there are some nuances that are lost, especially around how we think of the political economy of policing and prisons. Is the 13th Amendment really a loophole that allows slavery to continue, or is this a much more complicated political economy that’s not solely about private profits and labor exploitation? Still, it seems that there is less of a focus on individual bad cops, and more on the foundations of a system and its entanglements with capitalism. Of course, this was always part of the Black Lives Matter movement from the beginning, but there is something exciting about the way that this has become more firmly implanted in the national narrative right now. What’s happening in Minneapolis around divesting from police is really remarkable. And that is something that, three months ago, people would have said was unrealistic, unpragmatic, and politically infeasible.
I think that COVID has something to do with it as well, though not in a deterministic way. I think that there’s a certain outpouring of energy and frustration that comes on the heels of months of social distancing and isolation. And speaking for myself as a Black woman, there has also been this heavy feeling of Blackness being under siege from so many angles. We have the disproportionate death rates of COVID and murder by police—these institutions that are supposedly oriented on care and safety are actually killing us. The necropolitical has been brought into sharp relief in this moment.
THF: I think about the mainstreaming of abolitionist rhetoric and even of Black Lives Matter every time I turn on my Fire Stick and it shows the Amazon Prime “Black Lives Matter.” I roll my eyes into the back of my head, but at the same time, my daughter was so excited when she was watching the Disney Channel and saw “Black Lives Matter.” That one felt so different—honestly, it was a beautiful commercial. I thought to myself how glad I was that this commercial was going to be seen by members of my family—young nieces and nephews or cousins—who will never hear “Black Lives Matter” from their parents, but might see that on TV. But the concern is always about the reabsorption of the movement into the capitalist structure. And so in thinking about spatial fugitivity, what could marronage look like right now, in a time of quarantine when we’re not supposed to even be gathering together in large groups? Social media has encouraged non-Black allies to “buy Black” and donate funds to individual Venmo accounts. Do you understand these mutual aid efforts as a form of resistance to capitalist enterprise, or the absorption of anti-racist critique into the capitalist system? If marronage is anti-capitalist, what might it look like today?
BS: I definitely think it’s the absorption of anti-racist critique into the capitalist system. Willie Wright just published a piece in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers in which he was centering landscape in our conception of marronage, and thinking about freedom as marronage. Thinking about space, thinking about land and landscape, is really important for conceiving what marronage might mean for us today. Being someone who has focused a lot on urban contexts, that becomes a little bit more complicated—going back to how we started the conversation around freedom, mobility, and constraint. There are certainly ways in which the urban context precludes any kind of thought about expansiveness. In the ways that urban planners design the city, they don’t really make space for Black people to have that kind of mobility and freedom.
I think it also brings up questions about community, and who is in our community. One of the central ideas of Black Lives Matter is that a hyperlocal context matters. So if we’re going to imagine what marronage can look like as we exist today, we have to think about the local, about what conditions keep us together in this hyperlocal context, in a way that is not trying to determine what other people should do in a faraway land. While I can understand diasporic connection, and I do think that it’s important that we learn from each other, we then have to make these kinds of determinations based on how we combat racism in specific institutional contexts—in the South versus Arizona, versus what’s happening in Emeryville, versus what’s happening in New Hampshire. We have to disarticulate Blackness as it’s been spread about, commodified, and sent around and the needs and will of Black people. We have to start to understand the ways Blackness circulates outside of whatever intention we may have, outside of whatever cultural production we create. So freedom is thinking about the local context, and bringing back the mundane and quotidian elements of Black life in order to survive and thrive.
CH: Absolutely. I’m thinking about Doreen Massey’s work, where she says that there’s a way we can think about the local without either reifying it as this outpost that is shielded from the homogenizing forces of globalization, or pathologizing it as a regressive foil to the cosmopolitan. This is what I do as a geographer. How do we understand the historically and geographically specific terrain of struggle, and then from there, how do we connect these struggles? How do we build coalition or build solidarity across these specific contexts? This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, particularly in the context of Italy, where half of my family is and where I do my research. These uprisings have once again spread to Europe, where they’ve invigorated or flowed into preexisting Black anti-racist movements. The Black activists I work with in Italy are asking, “How do we use this global spark as a way to think about what ‘Black Lives Matter’ actually means in Italy? ” In a place like Italy, these are mobilizations that also entail thinking about, racist, colonial citizenship laws that disproportionately disenfranchise Black youth. They mean thinking about the system of immigration regulation and detention that leads to Black deaths in the Mediterranean and labor exploitation upon arrival to Italy. The struggle is not the same everywhere. And I think figuring out how to link that local specificity with the globality of a movement is the critical task in this moment—and to do so in ways that also don’t reify the local or the national as bounded categories, but that do take that specificity seriously.
Circling back to the original question of marronage, I’ve been thinking a lot about mutual aid in this moment. There’s been a real attention to local community mutual aid networks and the alternative forms of care and community that emerge out of these non-capitalist, non-exchange-based forms of community.
BS: I think there’s real possibility in these mutual aid efforts. It really is changing our relationship to these structures that we’ve become so dependent on. Mutual aid can look so different—it doesn’t only exist in times of crisis. We can actually think about mutual aid as an everyday, as this very quotidian practice that happens all the time, even when things are good.
THF: I’m really interested in this question of the local and global. I’ve been paying attention to the changes in tourism and, especially, roots tourism—which is something that I engage with in my work. I’m so interested in the ways that people are attempting to continue to travel and connect with other diasporic communities. I’m curious about the possibility of mutual aid in that global context.
CH: This starts to get into some tricky definitional territory—to what extent can we conflate mutual aid and solidarity, or mutual aid and co-conspiracy or alliance. Because in that sense, there are a lot of non-capitalist forms of exchange of ideas, strategies, expertise, and diasporic resources. I’m not sure if that could be considered as part of an expansive understanding of mutual aid, but there is definitely a real kind of transnational dialogue and learning and sharing that’s happening in this moment. I participated in an event recently called “The Civil Rights Movement Then and Now.” It was for an audience in Italy and the speakers included myself, who is Black and Italian, and my comrade Kwanza Musi Dos Santos, who is Italian and Afro-Brazilian. We were thinking about Black Lives Matter in the United States, Italy, and Brazil, and it was just this incredible moment of thinking across space and time in ways that were locally specific, but also focused on figuring out how these movements are learning from each other.
BS: Right. How are we conceiving of mutual aid in that sense? I remember when I was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and I wanted to write a research paper about Blackness across different contexts. I wanted to look at the United States, Brazil, and France—but I couldn’t pull the paper together. Imagining Blackness in those three very different contexts was nearly impossible because race generally operates differently in those three different areas. As we come to this point when “Black Lives Matter” is a chant that’s being spread in English all over the world, it’s not that these different locations are discovering Blackness. Instead, they’re trying to articulate their relationship to it. We have to understand what “Black Lives Matter” allows them to rethink or reshape in their particular location—to say, “We actually are having these experiences, regardless of whether the state wants to recognize us as Black subjects.” So if we’re thinking expansively about what mutual aid can be—where it doesn’t have to necessarily do with an exchanging of goods or funds, and maybe is about strategy instead—then I think there’s incredible potential for that.
THF: Arguments have begun to circulate on social media that it was George Floyd’s preexisting health conditions, including a coronavirus infection, that rendered him more physically vulnerable—effectively exculpating the police officers who murdered him. What might this tell us about the ways that public health and spatial politics converge? Is public health providing a post-racial rationale for the intensification of policing after over a half-decade of concerted mobilizations against anti-Black state violence under the banner of “Black Lives Matter”?
BS: With George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it’s, it has actually highlighted fractures throughout all types of systems—for instance, seeing people think that a focus on gender or even class is taking us away from the Black struggle against white supremacy. I think it also goes along with the question of preexisting conditions, not only for George Floyd, but preexisting conditions for Black people generally, whether we are talking about Detroit, Richmond, Queens, or the Bronx. The idea that personal responsibility is still on the table, as far as how we explain why Black and brown people are dying, shows us that the conversation hasn’t turned in a way that is productive, or that people aren’t understanding the kind of socio-spatial and socio-political elements that contribute to people’s health outcomes. I am also frustrated that we have to justify why someone was killed. There is a debasement of humanity when we have to argue over whether homicide is justifiable. It is unbelievable that we’re still having that conversation. I think part of the issue with having a conversation about health is that we don’t necessarily include it in conversations about space, race, structure, institutions, and criminalization. In Pittsburgh in December, racism was declared a public health crisis—and this was before COVID. There are ways in which we are having conversations about the violence of racism impacting our health, violence that is being carried out through these dynamics that are inherently tied to geography, but at the same time these connections are also being pulled apart.
CH: I want to take us to Italy, because I think that there’s another example there about the complicated politics of visibility, and what it means for vulnerability kill-ability to be rendered visible—whether it’s in the context of coronavirus infection or state violence. The Italian government recently voted to provide amnesty for hundreds of thousands of undocumented seasonal migrant laborers, many of whom are Black. And the reason was that because of COVID, there was a labor shortage—there was a fear that tomatoes were going to be rotting on the vines in the agricultural fields of Southern Italy. After the law passed, a government official declared that from now on, the invisible will be a little bit less invisible. In many spaces, this development was celebrated, but it gave me pause. What does it mean in terms of the regulation and surveillance of mobility under the guise of public health? Again, certain kinds of mobilities—those that have economic value—are permitted, while others are not. Agricultural lobbyists in Italy have been asking for green corridors, which would allow seasonal migrant workers to continue to travel in and out of Italy to work in the fields despite the pandemic. This is disturbingly reminiscent of the language of humanitarian corridors, which was used by migrants’ rights organizations during the refugee crisis. In addition, agricultural labor means living in racially segregated camps where people are in very close proximity to one another. So this is yet another instance in which we’re seeing that deadly entanglement of pandemic, regulations on mobility, capitalism, and race. This story also raises questions about appeals to the state for justice. In this case, what at first glance seems to be an emancipatory act—granting people legal status—actually unleashes new forms of state violence, regulation, abandonment, and slow death. It suggests that visibility in and of itself doesn’t get us to emancipatory, abolitionist politics.
BS: I was also thinking about the absence of real conversations around Tony McDade’s murder, where I thought there would be an opportunity to disarticulate the idea of the perfect victim. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they look like, or their background; the state is murdering Black people. Can we have a conversation that doesn’t focus on whether someone who has a father, graduated from college, lived in a particular neighborhood, or had this particular job—a conversation that focuses more on the state than on the actual individuals? I think your point about visibility is really important, but what I am still hoping is that the pandemic and this revolution is allowing the physical state to be visible—allowing those acts to be visible, rather than the people being murdered. I’m with the concept of speaking people’s names, so they don’t become just a number or so they aren’t forgotten in our memories. But we need to be able to expose the intricate ways that the state is murdering us continually—and not just in terms of incarceration, but in the street, in our homes. That possibility allows us to focus more on the ways in which our human lives are being extinguished because of this apparatus.
CH: What you just said about focusing on exposing the state rather than focusing on the individual actually gets at my discomfort with the way that we’re turning to data in this moment. What does it mean to make Black lives matter through data? The #8cantwait campaign, for instance, says that with eight policy changes, we can reduce fatalities at the hands of police by 72%. We already know that we’ve been dying, but when we move to quantify, it suggests that there is a certain threshold at which that death and violence is acceptable. It’s a problem when the focus is on the Black dying itself, rather than the structural racism that produces that dying in the first place. I’ve also seen this come up in some of the organizing that I’m doing in Santa Cruz. I have been in community meetings where people say that because Black folk are more likely to die of COVID, the best way white people can support Black lives is by wearing masks around us. On the one hand, I understand that—everyone needs to wear a mask. But I also wonder if this just ends up reproducing Blackness itself as a biological pathology, where the solution is, “Stay away from us!”
What are we doing with the data? How does the data become vital and take on new meanings through situated practice? Again, how do we, can we, and in what ways can we make Black lives matter through data? As Black folk, we have been trying to do this for so long. I’m fascinated by Du Bois’ infographics from the 1900 Paris Exposition, and his work on the Philadelphia Negro. We have been documenting racism for a really long time. We have that data, and yet it’s never enough. And so for me, the question is, Can that data collection be part of an abolitionist project? Or do we have to actually state a kind of refusal and say, “We’ve told you, and we’ve told you, and we’ve told you”?
THF: Aaron Thomas wrote a tweet that was reprinted in the New York Times, in which he was talking about the fear of wearing a mask in public as a Black man—“I want to stay alive, but I also want to stay alive.” Every time I read that, I get so emotional because I feel like there’s so much contained in that sentence. It really goes beyond just the act of wearing the mask; it really draws attention to racism as a public health issue broadly, even beyond COVID. As you were saying, Camilla, how do we draw attention to the data without reproducing the Black body and Black geographies as already dead and dying, but also recognizing that Black people are fighting to live?
BS: The politics of the mask itself have become unwieldy. Politicians have literally said that wearing a mask is something that Democrats do, or something that liberals do—“I have the freedom to not wear the mask.” And I think that’s very apt—they do have the freedom to not wear the mask and also to potentially spread a deadly virus. I think we’re going to have to start paying attention to different cultural objects to figure out how power is being wielded. So in this case, they’re thinking it’s harmless to talk about whether they have the freedom to wear the mask or not. For them, this is just about a particular political ideology or subjectivity. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with mortality; it only has to do with how they identify and how they’re going to vote. Whereas with Aaron Thomas’ comment, it shows how Black subjects are made. It’s through this: it’s through not only this adorning of cloth that’s covering our faces, but also through the ways in which we actually are becoming targets by wearing cloth over our faces. I know that in some places, in some stores, they were asking people to “tip” the mask so they could be identified and wouldn’t be seen as some dangerous figure. But it completely undermines the whole purpose of wearing the mask if you tip it. And in Lincoln County, Oregon, there was a mask exception for people of color. So it was going along with what you were talking about, Camilla, in terms of protecting Black life: white people must wear masks and Black people are more susceptible, so they don’t have to wear masks. What it’s doing is making the claim, like you said, that there are things that white people are supposed to do in order not to endanger the lives of Black people. But then at the same time, you’re making a political claim about whether you should have to wear the mask generally. They’re saying, “You don’t really have to wear the mask, and so we’ll allow the Black people not to do it.” But this is more so virtue signaling, by saying that only white people will wear it in solidarity with Black life.
I think this is an opportunity for us to think about power and the “freedom” to wield power in ways that can literally harm or kill people. Wearing a mask isn’t about protecting your own life; it’s about protecting other people’s lives. And I think the power to know that you can essentially inflict some kind of harm, violence, or damage on someone else is a very powerful position. People can really become drunk with that type of power, to know that they could potentially spread something. We’re seeing the ways in which people who are wealthier, for example, are taking more risks because they think they can heal or get better. If they don’t have preexisting health conditions, then they’re going to beat the virus. Whereas if they endanger the lives of other people who are more susceptible to these ailments, then they have the potential to die. This is the kind of relationship that I think we’re seeing play out, and we’re using a piece of cloth over our faces in order to wage this battle. And it’s frightening
THF: Thinking about cultural objects and power brings up the questions you raise in your book Black in Place, about the spatial aesthetics of Blackness. We’ve seen the “Black Lives Matter” painting on the street in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. And then another one that said “Defund the Police,” which created a great visual conversation. How can we understand the aesthetic emplacement of Blackness in American cities right now, in the context of both the pandemic and national uprisings? And what of the street itself: how are understandings of public space and its relationship to race shifting in this moment?
BS: Well I’m thinking about this in a couple of ways and in a couple of different locations. So on the one hand, D.C. stands out because it was one of the first places where there was a public official who was out there, who had city workers painting alongside the artists, and who made this major claim—changing the name of the street in Lafayette Square, which is known for being this really important location in Washington, D.C. because it’s right in front of the White House. It’s also been a central gathering place for folks who were protesting for a variety of different movements—they move from Lafayette Square to around the White house, or they go to the Memorial and they go to the National Mall. It’s a very important location. So, to put “Black Lives Matter” on the street and leave it hanging without any policy or mandates—there was nothing to go with it, right? It becomes this aesthetic marker because there’s nothing attached to it. What the mayor was doing was essentially using this as an opportunity to push for D.C. statehood, which in essence is a good thing for the people of D.C. But to use Blackness to make this particular argument for why it’s time to think about D.C. statehood now is disingenuous. It’s harmful, and it goes against everything that Black activists in D.C. have been fighting for. My contention in my Boston Globe op-ed was that the mayor needs to think about her city, rather than thinking about this as a fight over the land as it relates to the federal government taking over a large percentage of D.C. Attaching the art and aesthetic component to policy is vital. That’s why “Black Lives Matter Equals Defund the Police” was brilliant, especially because of how immediate it was. So on the one hand, we saw people walking over the street on Black Lives Matter Plaza, and again, protesting. And not even a week later, you see metropolitan police officers and state troops coming in and protecting the area and preventing protesters from being in the space. It escalated the police presence immediately, and it really showed why this is just a case of Black aesthetic emplacement rather than it being a true kind of political signal to really think about how to defund state violence.
The second way I’m thinking about this is in terms of Oakland. I went to downtown Oakland a few weeks ago and took pictures of the plywood that was covering a lot of the openings of stores in downtown Oakland. People have talked about it like it was an outdoor public art gallery. I agree that there were some gorgeous pieces. I think I was mostly captivated by the vernacular art that was being created in the moment. You could tell which ones were created in the moment, versus those that were created afterwards, when people came back and used the space or used the canvas as a place to make this cool, gorgeous art. So, I was thinking about the actual street, and what it means that these pieces are temporary. We’re seeing examples in New York, for instance. In Soho, there are art pieces that have been put up; some have been encouraged by Prada or other high-end retailers; others weren’t encouraged, and they’ve taken them down and attempted to sell them. So you see these political messages that are put up on these temporary spaces, which again were put up because they didn’t want looting or any kind of property damage. They’re buying into this aesthetic politics that ultimately uses Black people, or at least the Black struggle, in order to put forth a capitalist agenda. So, I think there’s potential in reframing our relationship to public space, in the ways that people can occupy the street and use aesthetics to do that. But right now, we’re seeing this strong cooptation of Black aesthetics that are creating what I’ve talked about in my book and in the op-ed as being more virtue signaling, and again, an opportunity to ultimately lock down the streets as opposed to open them up.
CH: So again, I’m thinking about what’s happening here in Santa Cruz. For all sorts of reasons, the terrain of local racial politics is deeply fraught and complicated in ways that I’m still learning to navigate. Less than two percent of the population is Black, and Santa Cruz also has a Black mayor—the second of two Black mayors in a row. Recently, the city approved three initiatives. July has been declared Black Lives Matter Month. The tricolor African diaspora flag is flying from City Hall, alongside a Black Lives Matter flag. And there’s going to be a Black Lives Matter mural going up in town, featuring contributions by local Black artists. This has been really complicated for me, because we have a police chief who’s positioned himself as an ally, and as the most progressive police chief in California, while also publishing an op-ed in the local paper saying that defunding the police would be irresponsible. In community meetings, my Black leftist comrades and I have been told repeatedly that defunding police and reinvesting and housing and health care will not actually help the Black community—as if these things are separate. For these reasons, it’s been hard for me to see these aesthetic overtures to Blackness at the same time as calls for radical structural transformation are being dismissed as unpragmatic, unrealistic, or infeasible. At the same time, there are a lot of Black folks who have had had the experience of growing up in Santa Cruz, which has a particular flavor of benevolent liberal racism (alongside gun-toting, KKK racism), and they are saying “This is actually a really big deal for us. This is an opening. This could be the beginning; this isn’t the end, but this means that something is changing.” Do these initiatives represent the symbolic opening of a door, or do these gestures actually slam the door shut?
BS: I think that’s a really wonderful question, because part of it is that it shuts down our imagination. It really has us react to it. So in the context of Santa Cruz, with people who have grown up in that environment, in those communities, and they’ve had their own struggles, progress feels so good—any kind of incremental move towards acceptance. I think there’s more emphasis on being accepted and integrated than there is on blowing everything up and starting all over again. Acceptance and integration mean you’re just funneling yourself into the same system. I think the whole point is that we don’t want the same system. It’s going to be like Connect Four: We’re going to have the same slots; you might switch slots, but it’s still their slots that are designated for us. In Flint, they had also “Black Lives Matter” painted on the street, and they were making this argument. This was the work of Black activists. It wasn’t the state that was trying to do this. Now, of course, the state is going to take advantage of it. It used it as an opportunity to say, “See, we support Black lives.” But what else is going to happen? This can’t be it. It’s not necessarily an opening; it’s a reaction. The system is reacting. The system is able to expand enough to enclose it, and then it’s going to retract once again. That’s how I’m seeing it; that’s the danger of it.
CH: I think that more broadly, this is the danger of liberalism, right. That is what David Theo Goldberg talks about in terms of the teleology of racial historicism. There are these gestural forms of inclusion that actually end up producing further marginalization. At a recent defund coalition meeting in Santa Cruz, there was one guy who said very adamantly, “I don’t want a mural!”
THF: So, where do we turn in these times for inspiration? What sorts of imaginative resources are helping you think through this tumultuous moment, films, books, poems, music?
CH: I’m a sci-fi nerd. I grew up watching star Trek with my dad, so I’ve always turned to speculative fiction in these kinds of moments. I have been reading a lot of Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin. In particular, Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is literally about breaking the world and trying to create something new. I am reminded of other thinkers who find inspiration in speculative fiction—Savannah Shange in Progressive Dystopia, or the way that adrienne marie brown describes visionary fiction as neither utopian nor dystopian, but instead as flexing our radical imaginations to engage with deep structural problems and build new worlds. I think that particularly in this context, when abolitionist demands are dismissed as unrealistic and unfocused and misdirected, there’s something really powerful about having those imaginative spaces to world-build and then say, “Ok, we can actually do this in practice.”
BS: I didn’t grow up on science fiction, and I started taking it up more recently. For me, I need to deal with reality, I need to deal with the earth, I need to understand what’s happening right now. And so I turned to speculative fiction—I turned Octavia Butler—to understand what’s happening right now. I started reading all of these types of books because I wanted to see where we were going, where we have the potential to go. So I haven’t gotten to the point of imagining another world or imagining another way of being—I mean, I’m certainly growing basil and tomatoes in my window right now, but that’s more trying to teach my kid to garden.
Beyond that, I’ve in terms of inspiration, I see so many of us turning outward, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to turn inward; that’s something that we don’t often get. I’ve been trying to rely more on my introverted tendencies to slow down, whether means speaking slower, breathing, meditating. I think I’ve found more inspiration in the quiet, and in those kinds of moments that I’m crafting for myself to think more imaginatively. I’ve come up with more ideas in that time, in that quiet—thinking about another world or ways that I personally can contribute, and recognizing my limitations. Who can I share my resources or knowledge with that can do it right now? Usually I think, “Oh, I can do everything,” but now this moment has taught me about our real limitations in terms of health and wellbeing. It goes back to the question of mutual aid, too. I’ve created this bubble with a couple of my daughter’s classmates, and we have a parent summer camp. Today is my day, so I have to take the kids and I have all these activities for them. I’m realizing how much making little crafts for them and doing things like that is pure joy for me; I love it. While I’m running with a kite and they’re following me, I think “I’m imagining their future.” So what do I have to do in order to be there? How am I creating this world for them? That’s the inspirational component for me.
CH: That’s so beautiful. I love what you said about Octavia Butler and speculative fiction—that it’s not just about imagining a new world, but also understanding where we are now. That is so powerful. That’s what that visionary fiction does: by slightly defamiliarizing our reality, it actually helps to bring things into sharp focus in ways that are deeply instructive. Whenever I hear calls for a return to “normalcy,” I shudder—because what I hope for in this moment is that we don’t go back to normal. That, in the same way that in The Broken Earth trilogy the world was literally broken in half, maybe out of this broken world we can we can hold onto these new ways of being that we’ve developed together. That they are not just temporary reactions or survival strategies, but new, durable ways of being. That’s what I’m hoping for.