|Photo of Twitter user @eyeFLOODpanties taken by Robert Cohen|
First, for the background details of what's happening in Ferguson, I'd recommend the article Ferguson is Fighting Back from Socialist Worker, which, unlike corporate media outlets, recounts the story from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the militarized police that have been terrorizing a small town for over a week. In particular, it is worth considering this quote from the article:
"Eavesdropping on questions asked of residents by the mainstream media was instructive. Again and again, reporters wanted to know about "looting" and "violence," entirely missing the main point of what was unfolding before them: every resident, if asked, could have told them about the routine police violence they've experienced." --Socialist Worker: Ferguson is Fighting Back
In the interests of contextualization, it's worth taking note of a few other stories about images, image sharing, and the desperate iconoclasm of the militarized police. From Tech Dirt comes a story of a police campaign in Washington to (incorrectly... illegally?) get people to stop filming them with a remarkable statement about responding to smartphones the way they respond to guns; from Z-Net comes a story about Apple's new patent to kill cell phones automatically, because hey, another week, another instance of Apple or Microsoft furthering corporate fascism, and lastly, from Medium, comes an excellent analysis of the way Ferguson represents proof positive of the dangers of a non-neutral Net, as Facebook algorithms systematically sank information about the atrocities being committed against civilians while Twitter sank the #ferguson tag in the US despite it trending globally.
If you want to get involved in pushing back against the militarization of police and the state terrorism on display in Ferguson, here is a list of resources (updated 4:08 Eastern 8/19):
- This Tumblr post provides a list of ways to get involved and spread information
- This petition requests that Obama actually do something leftist for once in his life and work towards enacting federal anti-police laws.
- Similarly, this petition involves having police wear cameras, and while it's on the ridiculous pseudo-democratic site We The People you might want to sign that too. You know, in case you want to get a limp, Good Liberal, noncommittal placatory response from some aide you've never heard of.
- This petition, in contrast, involves demanding a special prosecutor to investigate Mike Brown's death, as the current prosecutor has demonstrated bias in favor of the police.
- And this bill would put a stop to the military's sale of equipment to police. Keep an eye on this; it'll be worth raising some hell with our representatives over this.
- Anti-State STL is raising money for bail for the Ferguson protesters. I have no idea how I'd begin going about vetting this organization, but this is a way to get involved.
- Similarly, no vetting here but someone has set up a wishlist for getting supplies to the protesters via Amazon.
- Here's yet another post with various other links that might be useful to you (there is some overlap between this and other lists obviously)
- iwriteaboutfeminism has been covering the events in Ferguson extensively, largely by pulling from Twitter, which is useful for those of who who, like me, find the flood of information on Twitter to be utterly overwhelming.
- Twitter user @SheSeauxSaddity has been tweeting information about how you can get involved, and among other things seems to be leading an effort to sell t-shirts to raise money for the protesters under the name #OperationHelporHush
- As school has been cancelled in Ferguson, a Ferguson teacher put together a funding site to get food to the kids who depend on school lunches.
- Feel like supporting the community at large? The Ferguson Youth Initiative is one place to start.
- And perhaps most importantly, the gofundme campaign for the Brown family is still live. Although they've reached their goal, I can't imagine that they WON'T have a use for more money, and in a country where the law is determined by the free market by way of lawyer fees, justice might very well depend on every extra bit of cash the family can get.
With all that said, let's get to the secondary content of this post. Let's talk about the man in the photo at the top of this post, that photo, and its use.
I want to frame this discussion with these three tweets:
Please consider not purchasing shirts of my image. None of that money is going to me or the #MikeBrown family.
— Your New Friend (@eyeFLOODpanties) August 15, 2014
Salute to @eyeFLOODpanties for being practical AND political. We don't waste lives or chips. That shot of him is EVERYTHING.
— Princess of Zamunda (@Artemis_J) August 15, 2014
Yo @eyeFLOODpanties ----> the new Captain America. I thought of this when I saw your pic. #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/2si2t8V4k5
— dj spydermann (@djspydermann) August 15, 2014
The point I want to make in highlighting these, and in highlighting the other analysis above, is to hit back at a notion that I think lurks within leftist discourse on events like Ferguson, and the wider cultural assumption that it's a part of--primarily, that academics explain the manipulation of images and symbols (what Roland Barthes calls "Mythology") while the oppressed experience the effects of the manipulation of signs. In this basic idea, the lower classes, women, people of color, and queers have a limited understanding of the symbols they are surrounded by. They lack agency.
I'm highlighting this stuff because I, along with far more distinguished scholars like Chela Sandoval (whose book The Methodologies of the Oppressed can be read here!), think that's a pretty arrogant, inaccurate perception of events. In Sandoval's reading of culture, the systems that academics like Barthes codified and discussed are simply rigorously defined versions of methodologies already practised by oppressed peoples all over. Being able to signal-switch, manipulate signifiers (i.e. clothes, manners of speech, postures... all sorts of stuff that signifies mythologically--that culturally comes to mean something symbolic beyond itself), and carry out disruptive subversions of the dominant order is, in the work of Sandoval and others, essential to survival.
The photo of eyeFLOODpanties highlights that manipulation of signs in a pretty remarkably obvious way. What we've got here is a shot of a man with pretty incredible dreadlocks tossing a grenade away, according to his twitter, from some kids... while wearing an American flag shirt. I mean, wow. What an image. If I made up that image for a poster it'd seem over the top, yet there it is in living color.
And what's remarkable to me about it is that while this particular man couldn't have known that he'd be lobbing chemical weapons away from innocent children that night... he did make a decision to wear a shirt with the colors of the American flag to a protest where there was both a possibility of violent police repression, and a good possibility that some image of him would be reproduced.
Twitter user @Artimis_J is acknowledging that when she describes him as "practical AND political." Like, this wasn't just Robert Cohen taking a great shot that just "happened" to be a certain way. It wasn't luck; it was practical AND political--a series of choices that he made that resulted in the situation where that picture was possible.
He had agency, not just through his physical act of resistance but through his semiotic act of resistance, using the flag to position the protest a certain way politically.
And other folks expressed that same semiotic agency in different ways as well, such as the tweet up there that compares Sam Wilson as Captain America to eyeFLOODpanties. This is the kind of shit that you folks pay me to do every week! It is literally no different than the kind of points I try to make on a regular god damn basis! The only thing distinguishing us is that I'm using a bunch of theory jargon to explain what these folks are doing already.
I'm not saying any of this to explain it to folks like the people I've already highlighted. Clearly they know their business. And I'm not trying to use this as a way of pumping up the profile of poststructuralism; that'd be kinda crass and I can do that better elsewhere.
The reason I bring this up is because of my frustration with the way leftists or pseudo-leftists downplay this kind of semiotic warfare, either by downplaying its relevancy, by behaving as though it's something only the elite have access to, or by taking it upon themselves to co-opt the activism of others into their own artistic practice as though the transformation into art performs the mythologising work rather than simply translating the work others have already done.
This is particularly heinous when it comes in the form of artists profiting via t-shirt sales and so on off of the images of other oppressed peoples, as we've seen with the transformation of eyeFLOODpanties' image into a commodified product in remarkably short order (or Shepard Fairey's depoliticizing theft of leftist protest art for his branding campaign, which I've also talked about before on this blog). But I think that's simply the most egregious example of an unethical treatment of protesters and victims of oppression as entities without semiotic and political agency of their own, whose bodies are free for use by leftists for political purposes.
I'm leading into this, then, with a protester driven to action by Michael Brown's murder with the purpose of wrapping around to Michael Brown himself and the way images of his body are similarly reproduced as elements of leftist discourse. It is this issue that Gradient Lair analysed and criticized in the linked posts earlier in this article--the transformation of Michael Brown into an object of white spectacle culture. We can see how the denial of Brown's rights to his own image represent oppression in the reproduction of what the police claim (however dubious those claims are, given that they're dropping from the mouths of child-killing fascists) is footage of Brown allegedly shoplifting. Here, the denial of the Brown family's agency and control over the images of Mike Brown is an act of violence. It is the violent power of images and the stripping of agency that comes with their reproduction that the police so desperately fear.
This all reminds me of a post I made on StIT's sister blog Cyborg Maria last year about Chelsea Manning and the use of her body for leftist political agitation. At the time I wrote this:
The sort of... almost casual suggestion here that if Manning is still stuck in prison, hey, we can build a movement around that so there's an up side... that is disturbing to me, because it suggests that Manning's existence, her presence in prison, is a form of free labor that the Left can draw upon. The part of me that sees myself reflected in Manning recoils from the appropriation of her transgender body for political purposes without her consent, no matter how noble the cause.
The point is, I worry that Manning here is being reduced to a particular kind of body that can serve as a particular kind of ideological standard, and that this reduction is happening in a way that is potentially exploitative--that Manning's "work" as an imprisoned trans woman is producing a convenient tool for the radical left. And that's a situation that I'm not comfortable with.
I think much of this might be applied to Mike Brown. I worry that his body is being used in an exploitative way, not by the protesters who are rightly furious about the violence perpetrated in their community but by a wider leftist public that has no qualms using shock tactics to achieve its ends, and--perhaps more pressingly--by a reactionary corporate media in search of revenue-driving spectacle.
I suppose my point in all this, then, is to just offer a reminder that as Ferguson continues to resist the assault on their community, it behoves us to consider the ethics of the images we reproduce and the way we position the subjects of those images as not blind actors but as people with agency, a political consciousness, and the ability to make their own decisions about how they portray themselves and how they fight back against the mythologised society in which we live. Such recognition of agency is essential when these images are so often adopted, decontextualized, and manipulated further by the corporate media.
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