[Pictured: Valerie Castile, mother of the murdered Philando Castile, with her arm around a fellow marcher, holding a "Justice for Justine" sign. Photo from The Guardian]
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Son of Baldwin doesn't give a fuck about Justine Damond, and, apparently, neither should you.
Who's Son of Baldwin? He is known for his skillfully crafted and widely circulated pieces about social justice issues in the US, and is known for hot takes on various aspects of white supremacy. He is not known for his chill. Professor Johnny Williams' was the target of coordinated right wing media campaign and placed on administrative leave for a tweet that referenced Son of Baldwin's diplomatically titled piece "Let them Fucking Die".
Who's Justine Damond? 40 year old yoga instructor Justine Damond had called police to her Minneapolis suburb to report a suspected sexual assault. Officer Mohamed Noor arrived on the scene and, for unclear reasons, opened fire on Damond, killing her.
By itself, this is tragic but unsurprising. We aren't quite sure how many people the police kill - for years, the FBI's statistics on police homicides were calculated by voluntary disclosure of police chiefs, which seems to dramatically undercount - but it's probably a whole bunch.
What was surprising, on the other hand, was the response to her death. Legal consequences for police shootings are not terribly common in the US: between 2005 and 2017, only 80 officers were even arrested on charges for shootings on the job, less than half of which were convicted. Given a researcher's estimate of around 1000 shootings per year, that works out to a rate of less than 1%, less than half of which were convicted. In this case, the police chief resigned at the request of the mayor, which is fucking mind blowing. Out here in LA, often the nation's capital of police shootings, we can't even get the police chief's resignation over scandals like the sexual assault of a teenage girl and whatever frightening combination of militarization and mismanagement allows a police cadet to steal over a hundred assault rifles and other firearms unnoticed. Must be nice. Often in high profile cases involving a Black victim of police violence, major media outlets show photos or report information that is predictably damaging to the perceived character of the victim. With Damond, we get video of her saving ducklings, and the assertion that she is the "most innocent victim" of a police shooting that the attorney representing her family has ever seen, which is just...special.
All of this, I might add, is against the general backdrop of a political climate reeling over the indecorous antics of President Trump, and an aghast white liberal #Resistance to Trump that has suddenly realized that there are stakes to power and politics, which it misses no opportunity to condescendingly explain to people living in the hollowed out aftermath of politically engineered crisis after politically engineered crisis - some with the active participation of the Democratic party that said #Resistance urges people to unite behind.
But I digress.
What I'm trying to say is, it's easy to see where pieces like the one written by Son of Baldwin are coming from. It's hard not to. There are other pieces in this general vein: respectability politics is bad, bad, bad, this is not your grandparents' movement! Call-out culture isn't toxic, you are. Don't cape for white women. Further left, it gets weirder and memier: we need gulags and guillotines, opposition to this particular orientation to violence is bourgeois liberal moralism. At least "comrade" Assad opposed US imperialism!
One thing these have in common is a kind of performative rejection of something represented as a status quo, a repudiation of a valorized aspect of some (relatively) dominant culture. Tosi and Warmke consider something like this, which they call "moral grandstanding", but which also has been called "virtue-signalling". Moral grandstanders are self-promoters. They want to be seen saying the right thing, the thing which will be taken as evidence of good character by their peers. The phenomenon in the previous paragraph could be described as a special version of this, a version where the in-group peers one wants to signal towards define themselves in opposition or antagonism to a rival out-group whose moral standards are nevertheless epistemically accessible. To signal your bonafides as a member of the in-group, you need only contradict, mock, or otherwise "fail" to meet the moral standards of the out-group. This is what Son of Baldwin is doing when he assures us that he does not care that Damond is dead, though no one asked him to. It is also, from a different political vantage point and with very different moral and political implications, what the guy who tells racist jokes in mixed company is doing, and what the person who refuses to use your gender pronouns is doing. I call this "vice-signalling", because the signal does what it does by virtue of the fact that the outgroup doesn't like it.
One implication of the label "vice-signalling" is this: the out group's thoughts, moral compass, and evaluative norms are the primarily relevant factors for vice signalings and vice signallers. If this strategy is supposed to be how we escape the influence of the outgroup, it could barely be worse: this strategy requires me to make constant reference to what the outgroup thinks and believes, even though I aim to play contrarian. Depending on my commitment to vice signalling, I might even engineer conflict, leaning on inconsequential or even fictional disagreements, in order to make some opinion I have read as a subversion or offensive position against the outgroup that I might have easily just justified on independent grounds. Whole strategies of self-presentation in groups might form around vice-signalling. My political theories, my pedagogies, and personal relationships must all be abolitionist, must work to dismantle this or that structure of something or other, must be 'decolonial' - it would not be enough, apparently, for them to be true, helpful, or healthy. It is this problem, rather than the connection between signalling and self-promotion that Tosi and Warmke seem worried about, that bothers me.
There are two implications that I worry about. The first is a trade off. It's important to promote group solidarity - if a little vice signalling here and there does that, signal away. But it's no substitute in my mind for actually developing an ethical core to one's group, or a political analysis of the world calibrated to a real and dynamically constituted picture of how it actually is and a principled stance of how to change it, as opposed to just a way of signifying membership in a club. Why don't we talk in serious and concrete terms about decolonizing Africa if niggas really want to decolonize some shit? To do that, we would have to, collectively, commit ourselves to learning and talking about things that are hard, and boring, and relegated to technocrats - monetary policy, zoning, international legal and financial institutions, debt regimes. Applause and flame emojis might be harder to come by. But I think it would be worth it.
The second is about our souls. People who are systemically victimized are often also expected to face an additional burden: the expectation that they, unlike their abusers, will rise to the occasion of justice. I still remember, with inarticulable rage, the handwringing of news anchors around the reaction of Michael Brown's stepfather to the non-indictment of the police officer that killed Brown, and I was only a spectator. Valerie Castile said "fuck the police" we cheered - no human being should be required or expected to do what Mamie Till had done decades earlier. But even with all of that said, I find myself deeply disturbed by how much analytical/theoretical effort is put into justifying, complicating, or reinterpreting our worst impulses and behaviors: whose deaths or illnesses or pain we should celebrate, who it is acceptable to call "trash", why it is defensible or even crucial to "drag" people, or who we can punch in the face.
As far as I can tell most folks in this conversation are convinced that a moral, not just material transformation of society is needed. But many folks seem convinced that this is primarily or entirely the work of other people, often specifically the people further down in the inverted hierarchy of oppression. As a result some develop an "anti-politics": an increasingly long list of systems one wants to work to dismantle. Vice-signalling opposition to the status quo represented by the commitments on this list becomes one's politics. But I don't think there's much to be said for this "anti-"politics. The African diaspora in particular is full of innumerable horror stories of people, organizations, and belief structures rightfully and sometimes heroically opposing unjust power structures, only to later perpetuate their own brands of evil. But what have white cops done to Black people in the US that the Tonton Macoute did not do to Black people in Haiti? The destruction of feudalism ended a system of injustice but did not create justice - its successor, capitalism, was a just its own new brand of fuck shit. A vice-signaller who signals their opposition to capitalism has only asked a question, not answered one. US imperialism, impressive as it might be, is the new kid on the block - many people alive remember when the most relevant empire in their lives was the French or the British one, and mere centuries ago an anti-imperialist vice signaller may have promoted herself by single minded resistance to the Spanish or the Portuguese.
The battle for justice will only be won by defeating the current system of injustice if its replacement is just, and we will not figure out what that looks like just by opposing enough specific elements of the status quo. More importantly for this point, we will not be what that replacement looks like by opposing elements of the status quo, whether those elements are US imperialism, toxic masculinity, racism or anything else. I suspect that we can only make that just world by making it, not by knocking down this one. And, at least I like to think, there will be room for justice for Sandra Bland, and for Philando Castile, and for Aiyana Stanley Jones, and for Justine Damond in that world.