American Violence in Chicago and Beyond: The Morbid Symptoms of Our Interregnum


Jim Burns I Society & Culture I Analysis I December 7th, 2015



On November 24th, Chicago police officer Jason van Dyke was indicted on first-degree murder charges for the public execution of 17 year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014. The same week, the Chicago Police moved to fire police detective Dante Servin for murdering 22 year-old Rekia Boyd in 2012, and on December 1st, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Chicago Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy. Those events have shed even greater light on the systematic racist violence woven through the history of the Chicago Police Department and the city government more broadly. That brutal history includes the Department's complicity in the assassination of Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Black Panther Party leader Mark Clark in December 1969.

The most recent stories about police violence in Chicago are occurring at the same time as allegations have surfaced about the Dothan, Alabama Police Department. According to documents leaked by department whistleblowers, a group of narcotics officers planted drugs and weapons on African American men "for years," and the District Attorney covered-up an ensuing internal affairs investigation to protect the officers' careers (see Carroll, 2015). The unit's supervisor, current Police Chief Steve Parrish, Sgt. Andy Hughes, now Alabama's Director of Homeland Security, and other officers involved were reportedly also active in a Neo-Confederate organization, which advocates the return of Blacks to Africa and has called the Civil Rights Movement a "Jewish conspiracy." The actions of those officers could impact hundreds of criminal cases in which African American men were prosecuted and many sent to prison. Those White police officers viewed Black men as nothing more than commodities on which to build their careers, and many have reportedly received promotions and now occupy leadership positions in law enforcement.

Back in Chicago, Emanuel's firing of Police Commissioner McCarthy cannot obfuscate the culpability of Emanuel himself, Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez, and perhaps others in what Columbia Law Professor Bernard Harcourt characterized in the New York Times as a cover-up of Mr. McDonald's murder during Emanuel's re-election campaign. Considering the city government's extensive history of numerous forms of violence against Persons of Color and its willful negligence, abuse of power, and betrayal of the public trust, Harcourt and others are calling for the resignations of Emanuel and Alvarez as well. Further, cover-up allegations must be investigated, and if warranted Emanuel, Alvarez, McCarthy, and any others involved should face criminal prosecution.

In addition to the police murders of Mr. McDonald and Ms. Boyd, the Guardian (see Ackerman, 2015) earlier this year filed a transparency lawsuit and reported an "off-the-books interrogation warehouse" at Homan Square where between August 2004 and June 2015 the Chicago Police "disappeared" more than 7,000 people, nearly 6,000 of whom were Black. The Guardian report indicates that police allowed lawyers to access Homan Square, for only 0.94% of the 7,185 arrests logged during that 11-year period, and reportedly held those arrested for hours or days, denied them phone calls to their families or attorneys, and pressured many to become informants.

Another example of the City of Chicago's institutional violence against communities of Color includes Emanuel's 2013 closure of 49 public schools that served primarily African American and Latino communities, the largest mass closure of public schools in a single city ever, despite massive protests by teachers, led by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, parents, students, and community members. Speaking on Democracy Now! in 2013, education historian Diane Ravich characterized Emanuel's school closures, also a contentious issue in his re-election bid, as an economic development plan predicated on gentrification and the privatization of public education in the form of charter schools, which will transfer public funds to private edupreneurs. That same racist neoliberal formula has eviscerated public education for poor communities of Color in places like New Orleans and Philadelphia as well.

The contemporary violence perpetrated by the criminal injustice system against communities of Color, exemplified by the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer, and the police murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and too many others also brings into sharper focus the long and complex history of multiple forms of institutional violence targeted at African Americans and many Others at the behest of corporate power. In Chicago alone, examples of police violence against African Americans and organized labor include the Haymarket Labor Uprising of 1886, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the 1919 Race Riots, the 1931 Chicago Eviction Riot, and the 1968 police violence directed at anti-war protestors during the Democratic National Convention.


Racist Violence and the History of Public Policing

The recent visibility of violence against African Americans makes clear the long history of institutional racism in policing and the criminal justice system more broadly. Marlese Durr's research traces contemporary police violence against African Americans to the beginning of colonial policing, which in the American South centered on slave patrols, the first publically-funded police departments. As Black Americans migrated to Northern cities from the South due to vicious political, social, and economic repression and violence during early Reconstruction by the military, state militias, and the KKK, which took the place of disbanded slave patrols, Northern police adopted violent tactics similar to Southern slave patrols to control and segregate African Americans from Whites (Durr, 2015). Current aggressive police practices such as racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and driving while Black, as well as the unjustified use of deadly force continue the slave patrol ethos in modern policing and other judicial and political institutions (Durr, 2015).

Durr's work and scholarship by Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson on the Post-Jim Crow racism underlying our criminal injustice system, the neoliberal prison-industrial complex, and school-to-prison pipeline further illuminate the complexity of institutional and individual racialized, classed, gendered violence ubiquitous in U.S. history.


Individual and Institutional Violence in Broader Historical Context

The history of the U.S. is the history of militarism and violence. In American Violence: A Documentary History, Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace (1970) documented American political, economic, racial, religious, police, and personal violence as well as domestic terrorism, from the violence between Puritans and Pilgrims to the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy. Hofstadter and Wallace noted that American violence is widely regarded as representative of a history, but not a tradition for two reasons:

"First, our violence lacks both an ideological and geographical center; it lacks cohesion; it has been too various, diffuse, and spontaneous to be forged into a single, sustained, inveterate hatred shared by entire social classes. Second, we have a remarkable lack of memory where violence is concerned and have left most of our excesses a part of our buried history." (p. 3)

While I agree that Americans, particularly White Americans, suffer, as Hofstadter and Wallace put it, a pervasive "historical amnesia" about domestic violence, I disagree somewhat with the contention that American violence lacks cohesion, particularly in the current historical moment. Perhaps this is because Hofstadter and Wallace defined violence purely in terms of physical violence rather than interrogating American violence in both its physical and institutional forms. Their organization of American violence in terms of religious, racial, class, and political violence suggests a cohesive ideological nexus through which acts of individual violence have occurred in the context of institutional support of the corporate state. Over the last five decades particularly, many assumptions that have historically driven classism, racism, gender discrimination, religious intolerance, nativism, militarization, and a hyper-masculine ethos of violence as restorative have coalesced through the enthrallment with neoliberalism into an ideology that rationalizes, celebrates, and markets violence.

Thus, during the same week that Jason van Dyke was indicted for Laquan McDonald's murder, Robert Lewis Dear allegedly murdered three people and wounded nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. While Dear, a White 57 year-old male, was being taken into custody-a radically different fate than that which befell Mr. McDonald and Ms. Boyd-he reportedly repeated the words "no more baby parts," a reference to an incendiary undercover, heavily edited video created by an anti-abortion group that purports to show Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue (see Holpuch, 2015). Evangelical Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who has long articulated staunch anti-abortion and homophobic rhetoric, called the Colorado Springs attack "domestic terrorism, especially for those of us in the pro-life movement" (see Bobic, 2015). Yet considering the history of outrageously violent rhetoric and actions among many in the "pro-life" movement, Huckabee's condemnation seems more a disingenuous attempt to distance himself from his own violent rhetoric to bolster his failing presidential campaign.

Reflecting further on Huckabee's statement equating the Colorado Springs massacre with domestic terrorism reminds me of a 2013 National Public Radio interview with John Lewis on the 50th anniversary of George Wallace's 1963 inaugural address after being elected Governor of Alabama in which he vowed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" (see NPR, 2013). Lewis reflected on the power of words to create a climate in which some rationalize an entitlement to violence:

"My governor, this elected official, was saying in effect, you are not welcome, you are not welcome. Words can be very powerful. Words can be dangerous. Governor Wallace never pulled a trigger. He never fired a gun. But in his speech he created the environment for others to pull the trigger in the days, the weeks, and months to come."

Considering the deep and complex history of multiple, intersected forms of violence in the U.S., is it any wonder that America has descended into a de-socialized milieu marked by fear and the militarization of our social and political institutions? The twisted neoliberal ethos of markets above all else, bereft of any ethic of social responsibility and imbued with voracious selfishness and greed thrives on the manufacture and manipulation of crises through which all forms of wealth are redistributed upward to an oligarchic elite. That elite, who consider democracy itself a disposable excess and an impediment to capitalism, has largely succeeded in reconfiguring the state to serve the interests of corporate power. Corporate power has thus become overwhelming, ubiquitous, invisible, and unaccountable, professes no loyalty to any nation-state, has rendered establishment political parties a joke, and elections a high-priced reality show-like farce. The corporate state has facilitated the concentration of wealth and power into so few hands that the state wields what Max Weber called the monopoly of the use of force solely in service of a corporate oligarchy against a sea of dispensable people.

The lexicon of neoliberalism has functioned similarly to George Wallace's hateful words by dispossessing burgeoning groups of people of any opportunity for a decent life. As Michael Kimmel demonstrated in Angry White Men, the violence and rage we see engulfing America and the world is gendered, raced, and classed. Despite maintaining control of every social, political, and economic institution, White men portray themselves as victims of discrimination because they interpret those social, economic, and political positions of power as their birthright. As women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and many Others have demanded equality and the breakdown of White, straight, patriarchy, some White men, particularly working-class Whites who have suffered economic dispossession, have turned their simmering rage into what Kimmel calls an aggrieved entitlement to the use violence to restore their thwarted sense of masculinity. Most outrageous, neoliberal elites and political demagogues have carefully cultivated that sense of aggrieved entitlement, and, like George Wallace more than 50 years ago, created a fertile ground for the mindless violence now consuming us.


Safe Spaces, Discomfort, and Transformation in a Death-Saturated Age

Violence against African Americans, Women, Queer Communities, Native Peoples, Immigrants, Organized Labor, and many Others has a long history and has taken many forms in the nexus of corporate-state power: slavery; the violent suppression of civil and political rights; genocide against Native Americans; the proliferation of the militarized carceral state; the poverty created by what Chris Hedges calls capitalist "sacrifice zones" filled with destroyed environmental landscapes and disposable people; massive educational inequities; and union busting to name a few. The concomitant upward redistribution of wealth and power has reached the point at which we find ourselves in what Henry Giroux (2014), quoting Robert Lifton, calls a "death-saturated age" in which "Political authority and power have been transformed into a sovereignty of corporate governance and rule" (p. 183). Giroux (2014) further warns:

"The United States has moved from a market economy to a market society in which all vestiges of the social contract are under attack, and politics is ruled by the irrational notion that casino capitalism should govern not simply the economy but the entirety of social life. Since the new Gilded Age began, not only are democratic values and social protections at risk, but the civic and formative cultures that make such values and protections central to democratic life are in danger or disappearing altogether." (p. 184)

Educator and education researcher Lisa Delpit (2012) has written that "true culture supports its people; it doesn't destroy them" (p. 7). The market society of which Giroux (2014) writes has only hardened ethics of cruelty and violence such as racism, gender discrimination, homophobia, religious intolerance, hyper-nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, etc., which have always existed in the U.S., but have increasingly been mobilized to the extent that they have come to define America. That viciousness and the anti-politics associated with the creation of a market society has spawned a destructive, survival of the fittest anti-culture expressed in Margaret Thatcher's cruel maxim that "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families" (Giroux, 2014, p. 187). Sadly, Tocqueville saw the darker side of Thatcher's de-socializing hyper-individualism in his 19th Century study of American democracy:

"Individualism is a recent expression arising out of a new idea. Our fathers knew only the word egoism….Individualism is a reflective and tranquil sentiment that disposes each citizen to cut himself off from the mass of his fellow men and withdraw into the circle of family and friends, so that, having created a little society for his own use, he gladly leaves the larger society to take care of itself." (2004, p. 585)

Considering the pervasiveness of the neoliberal marketizing ethos as it seeps into every social and political sphere, is it any wonder that everyone and everything has become commodified with a "market value?" Our environment is valued only to the extent that the "surplus value" can be extracted from its resources. Human value lies in the ability to serve the market society through consumption, debt, and adherence to a cruel ethos of self-interest driven, as Toni Morrison (2015) writes, by a perverse sense of individualism as a taxpayer with no sense of obligation to serve others as a citizen.

My greatest concern as a teacher lies in the cooptation of education, both in formal and informal educational spaces, by neoliberal edupreneurs. Marketized education reframes schools, colleges, universities, and public educational spaces as profit centers for all sorts of "educational" products and envisages education as a reductive, instrumental system of technical training and disciplinary control by which to churn out compliant worker/consumers bereft of the critical conscience to question institutional power or imagine any other future than the present that has been engineered for them. As Giroux (2014) explains:

"Public education has become a site of pedagogical repression, robbing students of the ability to think critically as a result of the two political business parties' emphasis on education as mindless testing, standardization, and the deskilling of teachers….low-income and poor minority students increasingly find themselves in schools in which the line between prison culture and school culture is blurred." (p. 184)

Just as outrageous in the context of a history of institutional violence against Persons of Color are the rants by privileged White anti-public anti-intellectuals like Kathleen Parker, who excoriated "thin-skinned" students and "safe spaces" in a November 24th Washington Post op-ed. Considering the proximity Parker's own "hissy fit" to anti-racism actions at numerous colleges and universities and public mass actions against police violence, Parker's commentary is uninformed, flawed, and racist as well. What Parker and those of her privileged ilk prove incapable of even attempting to understand is that their entire lives, as has mine as a White, straight, cisgender, middle-class American man, have been lived in one continuous safe space in which their Whiteness, class, and culture have been unreflectively affirmed in every textbook they have ever read, every relationship they have been privileged to have chosen, every form of media they have seen, and the very society they have, as Tocqueville wrote, created for themselves. They have never had the courage to confront their partial experiences and flawed assumptions about themselves, their culture, history, and Others, and they have worn their culture and Whiteness as a "neutral norm" against which all else is Other. They have been privileged to live in a safe space described by the late Ronald Takaki as the Master Narrative of American History:

"According to this powerful and popular but inaccurate story, our country was settled by European immigrants, and Americans are white. 'Race,' observed Toni Morrison, has functioned as a 'metaphor' necessary to the 'construction of Americanness': in the creation of our national identity, 'American' has been defined as 'white.' Not to be 'white' is to be designated as 'Other'-different, inferior, and unassimilable." (Takaki, 2008, p. 4)

The Master Narrative derives its power of marginalization through expunging the histories of Others. It is a selective history in which stories that support the Master Narrative are included, while the stories of Others that might trouble the false narrative of a righteous, "exceptional" White Christian nation are selected out. One recent example includes the McGraw-Hill Company's catering to the Texas State Board of Education's historically nativist anti-intellectualism by creating a World Geography textbook that discusses Slavery as part of a pattern of immigration that brought "millions of workers from Africa to the Southern United States to work on agricultural plantations" (see Fernandez & Hauser, 2015). Another is the effort by then Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, who embodies the trend of non-academics running colleges and universities as the current president of Purdue, to ban the use of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States in public universities in Indiana (see Jaschik, 2013a, b). In response to Daniels' anti-intellectual attack on Zinn, John Tirman of MIT noted:

"As to the anti-American canard, I see this as the last refuge of a politician who is quite ignorant of the discourses in many quarters of American intellectual and activist life….Daniels does not understand that a vibrant civil society has many voices, many perspectives. To be contrary to the old mainstream construction of history is not equivalent to being anti-American. That should be obvious, but to a politician who still seems to be campaigning for something, it never will be. His unsuitability to be Purdue's president is glaring." (See Jaschik, 2013b)


The Morbid Symptoms of the Interregnum

The fundamental aims and philosophy of mass education, curriculum, and pedagogy have always been highly contested, and the pendulum has historically swung back and forth between capitalism and democracy, between justice and injustice. Today, however, the anti-politics of the market society created through contemporary neoliberalism have become so de-socialized and democracy itself so eviscerated that formal political mechanisms no longer seem capable of controlling the obscene excesses and multiple forms of violence inherent in unfettered capitalism. As our public institutions, particularly schools, universities and other public educational spaces, succumb to the logic of the market society, they increasingly become complicit in what Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed called the banking concept of education. Banking education suffers a "narration sickness" in which teachers-and I argue anyone in a pedagogical role in formal or informal educational spaces-talk about "reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable" and expound "on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students" (Freire, 2009, p. 71). Banking pedagogy views human beings as empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge and dispositions to benefit the oppressor, an utterly de-humanizing process.

John Ralston Saul, in The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World, quotes Antonio Gramsci, who wrote: "The old is dying, the new struggles to be born, and in the interregnum there are many morbid symptoms" (p. 215). People all over the world are seeing neoliberalism and all its pathologies, which extend far further into history than the neoliberal era itself, for what they are: broken promises that have broken societies, souls, and threaten to break the world. It is, as Saul writes, a dangerous time in which those who cling to power and its accouterments do so with such violence that they are blinded to the inevitable collapse of their system and the beliefs and assumptions on which the system rests. Yet Saul also asserts that we have choices:

"The belief that we do not have choices is a fantasy, an unfortunate indulgence in abdication. And so the curious thing about inevitability is that it tends not to last very long. The more the true believers in a reigning theory of truth insist that its growth is inevitable and therefore eternal, the faster the rest of us, who have a bit of distance, tend to decide that we do have the power of choice. And all things considered, we would rather choose some other approach" (p. 13)

In contrast to the banking concept of education, and our passive acceptance of the inevitable, Freire (2009) proposes a libertarian education as a process of reconciliation. Although Freire's writing in Pedagogy of the Oppressed was contextualized in adult literacy education, his conceptualization of liberating education has implications for all aspects of education, society, the economy, and governance. The key to liberation lies, as Freire wrote decades ago, not in integrating Others into the existing system-the inevitable-but in transforming institutions and structures as radically democratic so that everyone, can become "beings for themselves." Importantly, that transformation requires coalition building among and between some seemingly unlikely partners, who as yet fail to recognize their common interests in transforming the world through breaking hegemonic power and reframing power relations as more just.

In the epilogue of American Violence, Richard Hofstadter referred to the fatalism expressed by Lincoln, who saw the Civil War as divinely ordained as a "terrible but just way" of ridding America of slavery (p. 478). Yet Hofstadter, like Saul, condemns such fatalism as "hardly suitable to those who sense a potential catastrophe that they can still hope to avert," further noting: "The metapolitics of divine judgment are the last resort of those who have failed; the appeal to human judgment must be the first resort of those who expect to succeed" (p. 478). In the last analysis, we are in Gramsci's interregnum filled with morbid symptoms. Proceeding with educated hope and the expectation to succeed requires not a return to some romanticized notion of citizenship, but a fundamental rethinking of what radical democratic citizenship might mean. And this will require all of us to, as the late Dennis Carlson urged, sail from our safe harbors and rethink the world in new ways.



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