Beauty and Police
Aura Rosser, a forty-something Black mother of three, was shot to death by police here in Ann Arbor, on November 9, 2014.
What kind of human being was she? At the moment the answer depends on what the police suggest (drug addict) and what her sister is reported to have said (an artist). I do not wish to make biographical or psychological reflections about her but her death raises two other questions which deserve reflection: What kind of human beings are we? What are we to become?
The police, called to intervene in a domestic dispute, responded by shooting her in the face as she approached them from the kitchen, allegedly with a fish knife in her hand. According to her sister she would cook when she was upset. In fact she had a background in the food business having worked in restaurants in Detroit, Lansing, and Okemos. According to her sister she was “very artistic. She was deeply into painting with oils and acrylics. She’s a culture-type of gal,” her sister continued, “she was a really sweet girl. Wild. Outgoing. Articulate.”
According to news and police accounts, Aura Rosser became a cocaine or crack addict. True or false, the report links the death to international killing fields, the violence of production in Columbia, the violence of traffic in Mexico. Raúl Zibechi and Gustavo Esteva, both knowledgeable commentators, conclude that the narco criminal and politician have merged as the narco-state. In September 43 student-teachers were “disappeared” in Mexico by such a combination of corrupt authority and terrorizing drug cartels. These student-teachers in the state of Guerrero were (are?) young and committed to ideals of justice and subsistence for all.
I cannot consider Aura Rosser’s death at the hands of the police simply a “mistake.” It is essential that people’s justice be served for this homicide by a rigorous and open investigation of the police shooters. The police will conduct their own secret investigation but this is totally insufficient. A police state is a state not only of lawlessness and force, it is secret state. That is another link between the local and the global. Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower, has gone into exile having shown government spying on our telephone and electronic communications. Whether at municipal, county, state, federal, or international level, secrecy is the mask of terror or wrong-doing.
Obviously the homicide of Aura Rosser belongs in the wider context that includes racist violence against people of color: Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown. Aura Rosser was a Detroiter; she was a graduate of Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Her life coincided with the deliberate destruction of healthy and promising life in
Detroit. On the one hand the city of Detroit has been bankrupted by the theft of the capital which generations of workers created, and the historic removal of the entire infrastructure (energy, roads) and factory system of the 20th century regime of automobilism. In consequence the city has been hollowed out, burned out, polluted, and with drinking water which has been privatized precisely in that region of the planet containing the greatest volume of fresh water!
Because Aura Rosser aspired to be an artist this should prompt us to understand her homicide in a context, on the other hand, that is the dialectical opposite to the immiseration of the city, namely the struggle for a future worth living by the common people and the exercise of the imagination to that end. Detroit under dire necessity has a past and present of fabulous creativity by its workers and students that has resulted not only in the famed murals of automobile civilization by the great Mexican artist, Rivera, a tribute to the beautiful workers’ movement of the 20th century, but of constant social, political, and musical innovations against racism, oppression, and exploitation created by its common people, especially by Black people.
This vast treasury of human anti-capitalist experience is well-known throughout the discerning parts of the world. I refer for example to the movement of urban gardening, to the nation’s former poet laureate, Philip Levine, to the Motown sound, to the Grace Lee Boggs Center, to the enduring anarchists of the Fifth Estate, to the global perspective of the local auto workers, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, DRUM, ELRUM, &c., and to the tremendous restoration of dignity against the “niggermation” of the assembly lines which everyone knows is spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This creativity has relied on collectivity, on imagination, and on the heterogeneity of the people. Anyone at all familiar with this history knows it to be beautiful.
Beauty excites admiration, it excels in grace, it delights the eye, ear, taste, body, and finally that oft-neglected sense organ, the mind. In answer to the question, What kind of human beings are we to become? beauty makes its proposals of aspiration. It cannot flourish, or even exist, under conditions of homicide, ugliness, deprivation, greed, sickness, and thirst. Yet this is the reality.
How are we, therefore, to escape the dilemma between ugly reality and just aspiration, if not otherwise than by the energies of youth which move outside the inert box of degrading social roles, or by the visions of artists who can envisage another possible world? Yet this is what is being destroyed by the inhuman organization of the narco-state; this is what is prevented by the police state.
Beauty refers, in other words, not just to the emotional, spiritual, and sensory faculties but to the intellectual and moral as well. It is also political. Our ancestors a hundred years ago in Chicago when fighting for a society of equality and justice called it “the beautiful idea.” The fundamental condition of abolition of the slavery that has been the bedrock of racism in the USA is the revolutionary notion, “Black is beautiful.”
Beauty, of course, has a philosophical dimension, “aesthetics.” The word derives from Greek and refers to the perception of material sensuous things. “An-aesthetics” means without aesthetics, without feeling. Anaesthesiology complements surgery by inducing an inability to feel pain. Drug addiction kills feeling, and it can kill that power of imagination, that power to be beautiful which is what the planet needs now more than ever. The police state and the narco state are inter-related in a stinking slough of secrecy and violence.
Many people, young people especially but not them alone, desire to become artists, or at least find an artistic practice with food, with painting, with theatre, with ceramics, with wood or metal, with sculpture, with music, with building, with poetry, with writing. This desire is related to the impulse to escape from current misery. It is an impulse that takes courage to pursue because, for one thing, it must overcome the constant emphasis to get a job for the strictly utilitarian goal of revenue-obtaining and insurance-getting which is only available so long as profits are maximized for the One Percent. Courage is required for another reason as well because huge powers of the human spirit are required to be mobilized to overcome the ecological disasters we confront.
The police state requires its apologists, vulgar or refined as the case may be. The Canadian activist and journalist, Naomi Klein, has just published a book for our time, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It is totally put down with a snobby sniff from The New Yorker author, Elizabeth Kolbert. Here’s the take-down. “In place of ‘degrowth’ [Naomi Klein] offers ‘regeneration,’ a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, says Klein writes, ‘is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” This is ruling-class attitude. It refuses argument and looks down its nose instead. There is not a revolution in human history that did not begin with “fuzzy cheerfulness,” no slavery say, or the week-end, or fresh water. The artist, the young, and the activist refuse to take the world on its own terms. Another world is possible. Hence the importance of creativity, beauty, and imagination, and why the activist and the artist are allied.
I am not convinced that police are pursuing a policy of deliberately destroying activists and artists, though certainly police have got out of hand. They have way too many weapons, and as we saw last summer, these are weapons of war, cheap surplus cast-aways from the Pentagon and its secret wars. The way to prevent mistakes with weapons is not to have them in the first place. Perhaps we can begin by responding to domestic dispute calls without weapons, and do so in tandem with removing the causes of such disputes. Just as the nuclear arsenal can be slowly diminished or chemical weapons eliminated, so police could carefully reduce their personal and institutional armaments. Logically, then, we must:
Disarm the police.
Pie-in-the-sky, you say. Perhaps. But consider this. There was a time in Toledo, Ohio, when the police actually were disarmed. That was when Sam (“Golden Rule”) Jones was the mayor between 1897 and 1904. I quote from Robert Bremner’s article on police policies in Toledo that appeared in the American Journal of Economics and Society, volume 14, no. 4 (July 1955).
He was not anti-police per se. The first thing Jones did was introduce the 8-hour day where cops previously worked 12-hour shifts. Toledo had a drug problem at the time, alcoholism, and a homeless problem, vagrancy. Perry Knapp, Jones’s chief of police, instructed his policemen not to harrass people for being poor or homeless. “The aim of their policies was to make the police observe the rights of underprivileged classes, as scrupulously as they did of the wealthier classes.”
“The most typical reform which Jones and Knapp introduced in the police force, however, was the one which prompted the most vigorous disapproval from the law-and-order element of the city, was the taking away of the policeman’s clubs. In itself, depriving policemen of their clubs was a little thing. Like the removal of the ‘Keep Off The Grass’ signs from Cleveland’s parks it derived its importance from the fact that it committed the administration to a new viewpoint.” Their theory was that police should serve rather than repress. That was the “new viewpoint.”
Brand Whitlock, Jones’s successor as mayor from 1906 to 1914, was the author of a humane and generous book called On the Enforcement of Law in Cities (1910). He explained “I do not believe that the way to make people moral is to beat them over the head with policemen’s clubs; I think it is much better to make conditions such that they will have a chance to grow strong and healthy physically, and you can trust them to be pretty good after that.” They conceived law as natural right with popular consent. All three of these men – Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, Perry Knapp, the police chief, and Brand Whitlock, also mayor – were culture-type guys, like Aura Rosser the “culture-type gal.” They loved poetry. They read Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Jones sometimes served as judge in the police court. He didn’t believe that prison did any good. He made logical but unconventional, even whimsical, decisions. For example, “When a man brought before him on the charge of stealing bread from a bakery shop showed that he had been unable to get a job and that his family needed food, Jones fined everyone in the courtroom ten cents and himself a dollar for living in a country where social condition drove a man to theft.”
So, if our own historical experience can provide us with some guidance to our future, it seems that the experience in Toledo at the beginning of the 20th century was that the disarmament of the police as a means of eliminating its repressive function could succeed if done in parallel with the redistribution of wealth. It only makes sense.
Yet disarmament and redistribution of money is not enough: the “viewpoint” must change, the whole mind-set. That begins with the principle of reparation or restorative justice, the essence of commonwealth. In Mexico the call is for “dignified rage.” It must be ours as well.
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org