By Ray Horton

Picture the toy gun, abandoned beneath a gazebo. Just some found object with no identifiable owner. Scan the sidewalk, and see if you can spot the loose cigarettes scattered in front of a Staten Island storefront. Look closely at the street, and notice how a package of stolen cigarillos bakes for hours on the hot asphalt of a St. Louis suburb. Remember these images. Who would imagine such petty objects could carry such weight?

The protests rocking U.S. cities over the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice at the hands of police have drawn national and international attention — more so, perhaps, than any mass demonstration since the 2011 events of the Arab Spring and Occupy. Chanting “shut it down” and “black lives matter,” thousands have taken to the streets, blocked highways, and staged “die-ins” in public gathering places, all to remind the world of some unsavory truths: systemic racism and police brutality persist, no matter how much we desire to wish them away.

Protesters in Ferguson, MO [photo credit: Jamelle Bouie, via Wikimedia Commons]

Protesters in Ferguson, MO [photo credit: Jamelle Bouie, via Wikimedia Commons]

But as I look at my own community, the Cleveland, Ohio region, I see a glimmer of possibility — a wider, more robust way of imagining what these protests represent, and an unlikely cause for optimism in the face of what has otherwise proven to be a distressing year.

In Cleveland, we bear witness to the obvious reality that is elsewhere concealed from plain view: that neoliberalism’s war against workers, unions, intellectuals, and the poor is fundamentally coextensive with the violent standards of policing that are commonly practiced in minority and poor communities around the country. Cleveland, I believe, is testimony to the possibility that when we shout “black lives matter,” “shut it down,” and “we are the 99%,” we are in fact singing different verses of the same song.

Why the Occupation?

Consider what the following incidents have in common: the 1999 “battle in Seattle” during the meeting of the World Trade Organization; the protests by student activists during the 2009 G20 meeting in Pittsburgh; the teardown of tents at New York City’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, as well as the reaction to student demonstrations at several schools in the University of California system; and the images of a militarized police force overwhelming the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in August 2014.

[blocktext align=right]If police organizations around the country are behaving as an occupying military force, we must inevitably ask whose interests such an arrangement will ultimately serve.[/blocktext]In each case, an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration was met with an equally overwhelming display of military-grade policing — policing that escalated to violent crackdowns and attempts to silence anyone trying to speak out. In Seattle, the National Guard lobbed tear gas and stun grenades while hundreds were rounded up and jailed. In 2009, police in riot gear were filmed brutalizing student protestors from the University of Pittsburgh. In 2011, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg ordered the raid of Zuccotti Park — a raid that led to the NYPD throwing most of the Occupy library’s 3,600 books into a dumpster — while, on the West Coast, police at UC Berkeley rioted against students and professors (going so far as to beat a poet laureate and break another poet’s ribs) and police at UC Davis infamously pepper-sprayed students for sitting on a sidewalk. And in August 2014, we were treated to images of Ferguson police pointing loaded automatic weapons at nonviolent demonstrators as reports streamed in of journalists being bullied and arrested.

Police in riot gear at Ferguson, MO protests [photo credit: Jamelle Bouie, via Wikimedia Commons]

Police in riot gear at Ferguson, MO protests [photo credit: Jamelle Bouie, via Wikimedia Commons]

In each of these incidents, the cause for protest may have been different, but the response basically followed the same script. Whether citizens were demanding economic or racial justice, security forces clamped down with the shock and awe of an occupying military force, and they did so in a manner not qualitatively unlike the security forces of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Consequently, when Cleveland residents read (in the recent Department of Justice investigation of the Cleveland police) that CPD calls one of its district stations a “forward operating base,” a “military term,” according to the Department of Justice, “for a small, secured outpost used to support tactical operations in a war zone,” we shouldn’t be especially surprised. One need only drive through any number of neighborhoods on the east side of Cleveland, as in any Rust Belt city, to recognize that the economic injustices decried in 2011 and the racial injustices opposed by today’s demonstrations share a symbiotic relationship, and that they are equally sustained by the military logic of containment that the Department of Justice has described.

Let me clarify that I am in no way speaking about individual members of any police force, the vast majority of whom I presume to be braver, more generous and self-sacrificing individuals than I will ever hope to be. Like all public workers, I want them to be paid better, to receive greater respect from politicians and private-sector professionals, and to have their collective bargaining rights respected. But I also want them to be able to do the job they signed up for, rather than being conscripted into the wetwork of a growing plutocracy.

If police organizations around the country are behaving as an occupying military force, we must inevitably ask whose interests such an arrangement will ultimately serve. Surely not the communities being occupied. In order to think more carefully about this question, I want to address one tiny feature that the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice all have in common — an element in each of their stories that, as far as I have seen, nobody is talking about.

A Deadly Race for Property

There is, of course, one obvious common denominator in these three cases. In each, an unarmed African-American citizen was killed by a white police officer.

But something much more subtle is going on in each case, as well. In each incident, the violence inflicted by police on the victim is connected (or is, in hindsight, made to connect) to a relationship between the victim and a small, petty object. Tamir Rice, we are told, should not have been playing with a toy gun in public. Eric Garner was first approached by the NYPD for allegedly selling loose cigarettes and, God forbid, evading the sales tax. Mike Brown, the Ferguson police tried to convince us, couldn’t possibly be innocent — look at how he stole those cigarillos! In each case, the decision to use force — and to justify its lethal result — focuses on a relationship between the victim and an object in the victim’s hand, property ostensibly used improperly.

In each case, our gaze is being directed toward the object in the victim’s hand, not toward the humanity of the victim. We are asked to judge, not on the basis of whether the victim’s life mattered, but on the basis of whether the victim’s behavior regarding some trivial-seeming piece of property was appropriate or inappropriate. The identity of the victim is filtered through a toy gun, a handful of loose cigarettes, or a pack of stolen cigarillos while the victim’s face vanishes behind the commodity they were clutching at the moment of their death.

Cleveland Protests -  photo Bob Perkoski

Cleveland Protests – photo Bob Perkoski

It’s beside the point to suggest that Tamir Rice should not have brought his toy gun to the park, or that Mike Brown did nothing wrong by stealing the cigarillos. Rather, I’m arguing that when we are routinely encouraged to focus on these objects (much as Darren Wilson objectified Mike Brown as “it” and as a “demon” in his grand jury testimony), we see the commodification of human subjects at work; we see people and property being symbolically conflated in a way that affects our judgment about justice.

The protests of recent weeks have brought racial injustice back into focus for those who are privileged to not experience it on a daily basis. This is to be applauded, redoubled, and continued for as long as we have air in our lungs to shout “black lives matter.” Nevertheless, don’t forget that in many cases, racial injustice often reports to a calculating master, a master that goes by the title “neoliberalism.”

Not to be confused with liberalism, neoliberalism is a catch-all buzzword for describing the quasi-religious valorizing of deregulated markets, the return to social-Darwinian attitudes toward the class system (while concurrently denying that there is a class system), and the villainizing of intellectual and aesthetic labor deemed unproductive or boutique.

Put more simply, neoliberalism is basically a convenient shorthand for anyone who wants to make the following complaint: The global economy collapsed, millions were forced out of their homes, collective bargaining rights are being eviscerated, but we’ve never had so many billionaires and multi-millionaires. You might say it’s the social and economic phenomenon that makes us all feel so creepy-crawly when, for example, people buying stuff are called “consumers” and people with jobs are called “human capital.”

What does it all have to do with the transformation of police into an occupying military force, with the overlap between the protest energies of 2011 and 2014, or with Rust Belt cities like Cleveland? It’s simple. When the majority of people in a society are being systematically marginalized at the behest of policy that enables the upward redistribution of wealth toward capital, those left behind will get increasingly desperate and angry. So what, a growing plutocracy must ask itself, do you do with all those people? Best to make sure they move seamlessly through the system but remain securely hemmed in — contained, you might say, by an occupying force to ensure that they remember their place.

When someone in this context dies at the hands of police — toy gun, loose cigarettes, stolen cigarillos in hand — the symbolic resonance is profound: “None of this is yours; move along; don’t disrupt the free flow of commodities and services. You and your petty commodity are objects in the same story.” And when racial exploitation is used as the driving marker for sending this message, race makes neoliberal exploitation legible. When you walk the streets of Cleveland, you need only open your eyes to see how economic deprivation and racial discrimination walk side by side, hand in hand.

Love Letters from the Rust Belt

This picture of the partnership between neoliberalism and systemic racism is, admittedly, bleak. But even as I write this, I consider the love, the care, and the generosity being poured out by thousands toward the victims of this violence — the violence that comes to the public eye, and the violence that doesn’t, whether it takes the form of a wrongful police shooting or a wrongful foreclosure. And when I speak of “love” and “care,” I mean it in the most unsentimental way possible.

Cleveland Protests -  photo Bob Perkoski

Cleveland Protests – photo Bob Perkoski

I’m talking about a love that gets angry. A love that rejects false hopes and empty promises and instead will take up the most hopeless of lost causes for the one whom it loves. Cornel West has famously argued that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice, West contends, “is not simply an abstract concept to regulate institutions, but also a fire in the bones to promote the well-being of love.” Justice is what happens when love spills over its private, personal boundaries and enters political life, shaping our interactions with one another. It’s not quiet, peace, and harmony, the flaccid centrist dream of everybody just getting along. It’s a love that binds communities together based on an acknowledgement of our need, our vulnerability, and the memory of all that we’ve already lost. It’s a love that looks a lot more like the old word “solidarity” than the sentiments of a Hallmark card. It’s a commitment of the self to the other that precludes seeing him as just an extension of the commodity he holds in his hand.

How can we, residents of a region who daily witness the double-bind of economic and racial injustice, begin to demand justice in our community? Equally important, how do we rally together in solidarity and love, whatever the consequences of our dissent? The response I’m suggesting doesn’t begin in Public Square or in a picket line on the shoreway — though such demonstrations, valuable and inspiring, will certainly be one manifestation this response must take. It begins, rather, when you look again — differently — at all who are around you, whether family, co-workers, friends, rivals, the stranger across from you on the RTA or the smug looking kid who just served you a beer.

What might justice — unsentimental love brought into the public — look like if diffused among this multitude? It would deny and disparage every attempt to reduce the ones we love (universally) into commodities to be calculated or risks to be contained. It would begin by knowing how to look into the faces of victims, rather than at the toy guns, loose cigarettes, or stolen cigarillos they happen to be carrying in their hands.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri — philosophers, literary critics, and political activists who have given thought to the question of love as a political concept — offer the following:

“People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept, but a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude. The modern concept of love is almost exclusively limited to the bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the family. Love has become a strictly private affair. We need a more generous and more unrestrained conception of love.”


“Love means precisely that our expansive encounters and continuous collaborations bring us joy…We need to recover today this material and political sense of love, a love as strong as death. This does not mean you cannot love your spouse, your mother, and your child. It only means that your love does not end there, that love serves as the basis for our political projects in common and the construction of a new society. Without this love, we are nothing.”

Residents of the Rust Belt: love one another. And today, out of your deep love, be angry.

Ray Horton is a Ph.D. student and Dean’s Fellow in the department of English at Case Western Reserve University. He studies 19th and 20th century American literature, contemporary fiction, literature and religion, multiethnic literature, and the philosophy of religion, while teaching introductory writing courses and serving as the vice president of the graduate student senate.

Support paywall free, independent Rust Belt journalism — and become part of a growing community — by becoming a member of Belt.