The Black Witness: Police Abolition and Black Visuality

Abstract

This paper closely examines the politics and ethics of the current global protests following the murder of George Floyd. Focusing particularly on the demands of protestors in the USA and the UK, alongside the political reaction to such demands, I question the historical and philosophical status of the witness. Drawing first on Derrida and Agamben, I find the witness in European philosophy to be the bearer of an inheritance from history; someone who initiates contemporaneity by bearing the testimony of her/his presence in the past. However, this dynamic excludes the paradigm non-subject of modernity: the slave, who is defined precisely by the inability to bear the testimony of the past. Expanding on Frantz Fanon’s famous train scene, Frederick Douglass’s escape, and Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, I define a new ethics of the Black witness and suggest that this ethics can only emerge upon the abolition of the police.


i.

In his essay ‘“A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text”: Poetics and Politics of Witnessing,’ Jacques Derrida explains the Latin etymology of the witness (which in French is témoin). The first derivative is testari, which is the act of witness-bearing. The second is testis, meaning someone who is present. The third is terstis, meaning the third; someone who is present as a third person, as an extra presence to the subject and object involved in the event being witnessed.[1] The witness is the bearer of a third position that sees an event and survives it. This is the additional definition that Derrida gives. The witness is superstes, ‘“witness” in the sense of survivor: someone who, having been present then having survived, plays the role of witness.’[2] To be a witness is to have survived. As Ian Baucom says in Spectres of the Atlantic, ‘To speak of witnessing, of the work of testament, is thus to speak of the witness as either/or and both “terstis/superstes,” as third or survivor or third and survivor at once.’[3]

            As the survivor, as the lingering third after the event involving the subject and object, the problem of the witness is that their testament is always in question. Hannah Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963, is the propagator of exactly this paradox of witnessing. The witness is, by definition, the one who was there; the present third person, the survivor. And yet, just as necessarily, the witness is questioned. The witness is disbelieved. The title of Derrida’s essay (which is taken from Arendt) emphasises the problem: the poetics and politics of witnessing. It is always an act both poetic and political. Arendt rejects outright the testimony of witnessing on precisely these grounds. Witnesses, she observes, always have a political and an aesthetic agenda. A true witness, she writes, should be a ‘righteous’ man, a man who knows how to deal with the ‘poetics and politics’ of witnessing. He should have ‘the rare capacity for distinguishing between things that had happened to the storyteller more than sixteen, and sometimes twenty years ago, and what he had read and heard and imagined in the meantime.’[4] The witness is not to believed precisely because of his distance from the events he survived.

The witness is untrustworthy because he is a witness; because he survived. But he did not only survive. The witness also, by being a witness, by having survived the event and having become its witness, is exactly the person who does not survive the event. The witness is the person most tied to the event, because he is the one who must bear witness to it. He has not survived it, because he is its witness, bearing it within him.

Giorgio Agamben also contends with these paradoxes of the witness. In the third volume of his Homo Sacer series, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, he traces the two Latin origins of the witness: terstis (to be a third party in a legal dispute between two contending claimants), and superstes (someone who has lived through something, and can therefore bear witness to it). At the very beginning of the book, Agamben complicates the ethics of the witness. He notes that not only is the witness a survivor, but often the possibility of becoming a witness is the very reason for surviving. ‘In the camp [Auschwitz], one of the reasons that can drive a prisoner to survive is the idea of becoming a witness.’ To take revenge on their oppressors, to feel the glory of having lived through it and coming out the other side. But, ‘to justify one’s survival is not easy – least of all in the camp.’[5]

            The witness, then, is a figure who simultaneously inhabits two times. The witness exists in the event’s future, while being simultaneously bound to the contemporary of the event. The witness is both able to bring the event to life as its speaker in a future in which the event necessarily no longer exists, and the witness is the bearer of the historical truth of the event as the person who was there at the time.

            The witness is the figure that allows the continuation of social time. The illusion of a social flow – what Kant calls ‘progress perpetually toward the better’[6] – is allowed by the contemporary witness bearing the events of the past. The process happening, though, is not so much a flow, as it is often perceived, but rather an accumulation. The witness is gathering within himself the load of history, bearing its truth and thus inventing the authentic truth of now; he creates the nowness of now by accumulating past time within himself as the paradoxically truth-bearing but always-in-question witness.

            Derrida points out, in Spectres of Marx, the links between witnessing and the inheritance of history. This is how time is passed on. Bearing witness is the inheritance of an impossible death, an incomplete death of pasts for which we are forever in mourning. We are, meanwhile, forever trying to understand the impossibility of our mourning. ‘All the questions on the subject of being or of what is to be (or not to be) are questions of inheritance.’ He goes on,

That we are heirs does not mean that we receive this or that, some inheritance that enriches us one day with this or that, but that the being of what we are is first of all inheritance, whether we like it or know it or not. And that … we can only bear witness to it. To bear witness would be to bear witness to what we are insofar as we inherit, and that—here is the circle, here is the chance, or the finitude—we inherit the very thing that allows us to bear witness to it.[7]

The circular logic is revealed perfectly here. What we inherit is the ability to bear witness to our inheritance, and our inheritance is what we bear witness to. Culture is continued by the constant inheritance of its constant loss.

            In this sense, the witness is the creator of now. The witness is the figure who conditions the possibility of society contemporarily defining itself – of having a culture that is distinct. It does this only by mourning the loss of a previous culture, either merrily or dejectedly, and that mourning initiates the possibility of another culture now, borne by and accumulated within the testimony of the witness. In this formulation, taken to this degree of circularity, the witness becomes – more than a singular survivor of a single event – the creator of cultural contemporaneity. The witness is the accumulator of time and the bearer of now.

            ii.

On the 25th May 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old security guard who had spent most of his life in Houston and moved to the Twin Cities in 2014, bought cigarettes from Cup Foods, a shop on the corner of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The person working in the shop thought that Floyd had used a fake $20 note, and called the police. Four police officers responded. They arrived and forced him onto the ground in the middle of the road. Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old officer with eighteen complaints on his official record and who had been previously involved in multiple shootings (in which he was the shooter), pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, while Floyd proclaimed that he could not breathe.

            Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas Lane murdered George Floyd between 8.17 and 8.27pm on the 25th May.

On the 26th May, protests began in Minneapolis, involving a variety of participants with political demands ranging from liberal to radical. Some demanded – and continue to demand – reform of legal institutions, including a reduction in police funding. Other, more radical, demands included the total abolition of the police, which has long been a pursuit of anarchists and other radical anticapitalists.

            In the following days, protests emerged across the country, and then around the world. The political commentary quickly turned to the violence of the protest. Conservative commentators from ITV news hosts to Priti Patel, the secretary of state, condemned the protests with familiar dismissals, calling it ‘thuggery’ and ‘criminal.’

The hundreds of thousands of protestors may have seemed, initially, to have eclipsed the origin of the protests, which was the murder of George Floyd. The spectacle had become the protests themselves, rather than the event that triggered this wave of their manifestation or the demands around which they were based. The witnesses had accumulated history inside themselves, inheriting the lost time of that to which they bore witness: the murder of a Black person by a White police officer. However, there is a power that attempts to break the accumulation of history within a radical subject who demands change. There is conservative power; there is the force of government, of the nation, of empire and capital, that is inherently anathema to the accumulation of history within radical subjects. It is impossible for the power of empire and capital to accept the radical mourning of the witnesses, of those who demand to be able to mourn the loss of a history that they inherited.

            The narrative changed accordingly. As government ministers in the UK began to be repeatedly questioned about the importance of these massive protests, they could not posit the entire meaning of the event in the ‘thuggery’ of the protestors, because, once the protestors include hundreds of thousands of people, the implicit revelation is that an entire city’s-worth of people in this country are thugs who want violent change. And once they become aware of that – once it is ordained by the official narrative that their radical demands are of a size that is itself history, and therefore they are capable of accumulating themselves as history, of being witnesses of themselves – they no longer suffer the inevitable misery of the heir: that the past cannot be mourned because the witness is always in the paradoxical third position, unbelieved, unreal, just an accumulator of pasts. Becoming a witness of oneself means that the witness then inhabits the first and third positions: that is, they become both subject and witness; they are the event and the survivor of the event.

            The powers of empire at this point move the narrative back to the original event. They say that they are appalled by the murder of George Floyd, but that all of these protests are only concerned with the USA and the minor instances of police brutality that sometimes erupt out of the generally smooth fabric of American policing. What is hidden here is that the police and police brutality are not separate things. The police is brutality. There is no distinguishable manifestation between them. The police does not occur without brutality. The police, as an institution, as a social proposition, is the violent imperial force charged with the task of defending bourgeois property. Police officers occupy protests not to protect protestors, as the most obvious example for anyone who has ever attended a protest: they are there to protect the property of the people who are not protesting. The protestors have renounced their status as proper possessors of property by involving themselves in the protest, and instead they have become threats to property, so they are policed.

            The narrative, then, is refocused on the original event. The original event, however, has been accumulated inside the protestors as those who bore witness to history. But, of course, the protestors did not witness the murder. The witnesses were not there when it happened. The protestors, instead, were the witnesses of their own absence in the original event: what they bore witness to was their own absence. The inheritance the protestors received, and that they had to mourn, was the fact of their own absence in history. We were not there when he was murdered. We failed to stop another murder. Their own absence in history is the mournful inheritance they have to confront as they protest, as they demand the eradication of the force that enforces their absence.

            My only experience of antiracist protests is as a White man, protected inherently by the ontological defence of my Whiteness, which matches the defence of the White supremacist police force. Here, however, I am thinking about Black protestors; protestors who have borne the same liminal ontological ground as the absence they are protesting the eradication of: George Floyd, in this case. I am attempting to think about what the absence of witnessing means – what the internal accumulation of history’s inheritance means – when what the protestor accumulates is not the dual scene of being at the time of the event and carrying that being into now, but rather the same risk of the original event, and the events accumulated already in that event. Accumulated in George Floyd’s life already was enslavement, lynching and Jim Crow, etc. So, accumulated into the witness-bearing protestors is all of that as well as the forced absence of George Floyd. What is borne within Black antiracist protestors is, I think, the impossibility of passing on the inheritance of risk they have accumulated, being able only to pass on that inheritance by their forced absence by the police. That is, Black protestors can only pass on the inheritance of their accumulated history by being killed by the police, giving the agency, ultimately, of Black witnessing to the force charged with the maintenance of White supremacist World.

The police exists to expel the presence of the witness, in order for the police’s enforcement of history to be not only unwitnessed but unmourned. The police refuses the process of mourning, of mourning every absence in the history that accumulates within Black protestors now as they enact the time of now – as they initiate contemporaneity – by speaking that past to which they did not bear witness.

            Here I feel that I have reached another point in the finitude of that Derridean circularity. The witness is the creator of history, because the witness speaks now, saying that she was not there, and by that process she brings history to herself, accumulating it inside herself. The event occurs when it is later spoken by the witness. The death of George Floyd as history, as an event, did not only occur while Chauvin was murdering him on East 38th Street in Minneapolis. It occurred, again and again, while the protesters enacted the culture of now by accumulating their own absence at the scene of the event inside themselves, inside the contemporary, and by doing so they created the contemporary.

            iii.

The event is a ghost haunting the moment of the witness. The witness is the initiator of the spectral re-emergence of the event as history. Ian Baucom says, reading Derrida, ‘the event, like the spectre, is an untimely apparition: untimely in the sense that it first appears as the reapparition of itself, emerges into visibility (as an event) not at the moment of its happening but only within the retrospective purview of … its subjects.’[8] It is the absence of a witness of the event – of a survivor who bears the event’s testimony – that itself bears witness to the original event as now. The contemporary means to bear witness to a past accumulated within the contemporary subjects who were absent for history, who are mourning their inheritance.

            So what is being described in the testimony of the witness? What is included in the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd?

            The protest cannot serve to demand the life of George Floyd. Within a liberal argument, it can demand legal retribution for his murder, demanding that the murderers are arrested and punished for the crime they committed. A radical argument would not demand this, because the law is itself what killed George Floyd, so demanding retribution from the law is never going to change anything. That is only asking for a temporary catharsis, to momentarily patch up a social wound to distract the polity possibly until the time of the next racist murder committed by the police. The law cannot protect against the law. The police is not the force who can limit the violence of the police.

            This is the tension between liberal and radical demands at protests like these. For radicals, what liberals ask for is a pointless tautology. Police reform means nothing for a radical (anti-)politics because police is a force that functions only to maintain current power; it functions only to protect the property of property-owners. This is the case both historically and theoretically. That is, the history of the police is based in the protection of property, from the first London forces hired to protect goods imported to the dockyards to the clearances of protestors around the White House during the 2020 protests. Also, the theory of the police is the protection of property in the service of those who own it.

            Ian Baucom presents another question and answer to add to these questions above. ‘To what does the witness bear witness? To bare life, abandoned.’[9] The witness sees the lost pasts that constitute the excluded life of society. The witness watches the rejection of certain forms of being from the accumulation of history. Some subjects are thrown overboard, and those subjects no longer roll into the coagulation of history, stuck inside the body of the witness, the disappearing spectacle, waiting to become another case of impossible mourning, another death untold.

            The witness is the witness of the mind of the witness. This is, finally, the irreducible Kantianism of the politics of witnessing. The witness is a witness of the witness’s contemporary, and by that act of witnessing the witness creates now as distinct from the event witnessed.

            The protestors in 2020 bear witness to their own ability to feel the loss of George Floyd, to feel the recurring possibility of the institutional murder of Black people; the protestors bear witness to their own absence in history, and the possibility of the endless repetition of that absence. The protestors bear witness to their own melancholy, to their liberal feelings of compassion for a historical absence. Through their own absence, the event was accumulated inside them as an inherited mourning, as the grief of a past absorbed into the performance of contemporary melancholy, and by that performance this moment is defined.

The testament of witnesses is to themselves and their own contemporary production of a history that ends in themselves.

            iv.

Frantz Fanon is on a train. A White boy sees him. The boy turns to his White mother.

            “Look, a Negro!” It was true. It amused me.

            “Look, a Negro!” The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.

            “Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” …

I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity … Then, assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. In the train I was given not one but two, three places. I had already stopped being amused. It was not that I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I occupied space. I moved toward the other . . . and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea. . . .

I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: “Sho’ good eatin’.”[10]

The moment the boy points out Fanon’s Blackness, Fanon is separated from himself. The corporeal schema crumbles. The subjectivity of existing within a body, in the history of the socius and its myth of progressive time, is collapsed upon recognition of immediate difference.

            Suddenly, as the full subjectivity of the boy is proclaimed by an assertion of his own Whiteness, the removal of the Black body is enacted: the Black body cannot exist in the schema conducted within a frame of White normativity. The boy is saying, look, there is a thing that is impossible to recognise as the same as me. The thing in front of the boy cannot possibly be recognised within the White supremacist schema of modernity, of progressive time and motion. Something is stopping the whole scene, and it is Blackness – it is the recognition of Blackness that initiates a break in the scene that then redefines the problem as Blackness.

            Fanon is not, importantly, turned into an object of the scene. He is removed from binary opposition to the White boy, because he is excluded from expressing shock at the Whiteness of the boy. The scene is premised on only one moment of shock, one break in the being of the scene’s progressive time. The boy is shocked at the Blackness in front of him, but Fanon cannot be shocked at the boy. He can only be shocked at the fact of the boy’s shock, and that can only happen later, when he has become a witness of the event.

            Immanuel Kant’s transcendental ideality of space explains that objects in themselves cannot be known; space is synthetic a priori knowledge: it is exists within the human mind, as a geometrical proposition imposed onto the perceived world, which is both synthetic (it teaches the mind about the world; it is ampliative, offering knowledge that is not contained within the definition of the judgement itself) and a priori (knowable without appeal to the senses; known only in the human mind, rather than through experiments with external objects). Things in themselves are inherently unknowable to the human mind. The fundamental proposition of this theory is that space exists only within the human mind; space, that is, is ideal. It is a projection imposed by the human mind onto objects in order for us to be able to formulate an understanding of them. [11]

            If we bring together Fanon’s famous “Look, a Negro!” scene and Kant’s ideality of space, we find an important convergence in the history of race and of space. They convergence over the ground that is the politics of witnessing.

            The boy is the subject of the scene. The boy’s mind – in the World of Kant’s transcendental ideality of space – is the condition for the spatialization of the scene. The scene’s geometry is figured according to the centrality of the White boy. He is the figure who decides the positioning, who positions himself as the body from which observation happens, whether or not he is in the centre. This is precisely how Kant formulates the ideality of space, according to the Copernican revolution. He proposes that Copernicus could not discover anything a priori (by thinking, not by observation) about the celestial bodies by working on their own framework of space. Instead, Copernicus had to set Earth in motion and leave the stars stagnant in order for them to conform to his movements in space. The subject had to become the geometrical decider; the human mind projects onto space its own formulations of thinking, and that is how World is ordered. As it is for astronomy after Copernicus, so it is for Kant’s transcendental ideality of space.

            The White boy positions Fanon, but not as his object. On the train he is not still in space, stuck there for the boy to observe him. The boy, after all, is shocked that Fanon is there, and Fanon is triply there. The subject is not shocked by the presence of an object in Kantian geometry because the subject is the one who decides the position of the objects. Fanon, moreover, occupies space. He is an intruder, a bizarre apparition from another time. He is a ghostly presence haunting from the battered-down past, from a forgotten scene already thrown overboard.

            Fanon is outside the schema. He is beyond the possibility of being ordered in the astronomy of ideal (White) space. He occupies a third space, an impossible spectre of witnessing, while remaining in bodily form on the train, but only witnessing his absence. He is the re-emergence of a spectral form that speaks this event into being despite and because of his own impossible absence in the scene. He was there, he saw it happen, and yet the scene is necessarily premised on his absence. How could he be more absent than a Negro in the racist ideality of Kantian space? How could anything mark his absence more than the pointing White finger of the boy and racist ontology snapping a hole in the scene, erasing a dark face from the photograph?

            Fanon is forced to see himself from outside himself in this scene. He is projected away from his own body in the geometry of the boy. His body may remain a simple object in the scene of some other witness on the train, but here, in this scene, in this testament borne in the spectre accumulating history in his impossibility, his testimony always in question, always disbelievable, always and necessarily forever absent – here he is a witness only to his own absence. He inhabits, always, the third position.

            The third position is occupied already by the Black subject in Kantian modernity. The Black subject is the meaning of the witness. The absent historical figure who is coded in the contemporary as absence, as the impossible non-presence always haunting the cuts and breaks of the past, is what we refer to when we say “Black.”

            So what is the Black witness? The witness-as-Black-(non)subject is not the same as the Black witness.

            v.

In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy provides the possibility of thinking further into a figure called the Black witness. Gilroy looks at a scene in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The autobiography, published in 1845, follows Douglass’s life in slavery, and his eventual escape. He then became the most renowned abolitionist in American history.

            Gilroy emphasises the ‘simultaneous self-creation and self-emancipation’ of ‘slave narratives.’[12] The slave is the witness who cannot bear testimony. As so many eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings and photographs show, depicting the White bourgeois family and then, in a smudged corner, the Black boy attending to them, the slave is always there, but has no right to carry this testimony into the future; the slave is the figure who exists only in the original past of the event, rather than in the future in which the event is hauntologically, spectrally, ghostly, activated and brought to social being by the testimony of the witness. The slave is the one who is there, but, being in a third position even to himself, unable to attend to himself as a subject and only able to see himself from outside (“Look, a Negro!” says the slave even of himself), cannot later speak this event into being.

            For the slave, then, to speak of his own emancipation, of his own history and to summon the accumulated past as a retrospectively activated event, is a monumental act that warps the racism of time. The slave is pulling himself into the contemporary, initiating a contemporary moment that can be spoken into being by the slave, and thus eradicating his definition as “slave.”

            When Douglass speaks of his emancipation, his escape from his enslaving owners, he is then becoming the witness: he is speaking a past event into being by bearing its testimony, by speaking from the third position as the one who survived, who accumulated the lost time of the past. That is exactly what the witness is, and it is exactly what the slave is barred from in the temporality of slavery’s empire.

            Douglass emphasises this act in his narrative by confronting the reader’s suspicions of the narrative’s veracity. Douglass knows already that his readers will be suspicious, because the Black witness, as opposed to the witness who bears the testimony of her own spectral presence in the inherited past, occupies an inherently paradoxical position, since he is defined by the fact that he cannot inherit history. He is a possession of those lost in history, only allowed to exist in the past, never to inherit it or survive. The Black witness’s paradox is this: he is both the one who is bearing testimony; and what his testimony bears witness to is the fact that he is disallowed the status of witness. Gilroy quotes him as writing,

I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine providence in my favour. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and incur my own abhorrence.[13]

The reader may disbelieve Douglass, but first of all Douglass must take pains to believe himself. He dismisses the reader’s drive towards suppression, exerting instead the risk of his own self-suppression, which he then rises out of.

The suppression imposed on him by the (White) reader has been replaced, narratively and literally, by the suppression he bears within him, the capacity for suppression that he has accumulated through the testimony he bears. It is not his status as witness that frees him from the category of witness initially so anathema to his own status; he has reinvented the witness, and carried himself away from even that new paradigm: he is free of a new notion of freedom.

His own narrative is here advertised as a form of self-initiation. He is enacting the process of bringing himself into being in a World that adamantly tries to remove him from being. This self-initiation is, Gilroy says, the philosophical style of the Black Atlantic. It is the way in which the ‘vernacular components of black expressive culture’ have brought themselves into being. This style is autopoietic: it creates itself out of itself.[14]

            The Black witness here is making himself. He is formulating a Black possibility of witnessing out of the being of the Black witness. Meanwhile, he is also eradicating the possibility of the prior status of witness.

Fanon writes away the possibility of the boy’s hegemonic view of the scene, not repositioning the geometry of the memory but rather abolishing the codes of geometry. Douglass elicits the fears of the White reader who cannot bear the possibility of this slave giving testimony to the end of his own enslavement, and, with that form of witnessing in his hands, he writes it away, pushing out the discourse of the witness and bringing in the purview of his own self-suppression, out of which he then breaks. In both of these scenes, we find the mutual forces of the Black witness: both destructive and constructive. At once, the Black witness destructs the foundation that initiated her own status as non-witness, and then she constructs an alternative status out of a different ground.

The Black witness is the bearer of a testimony that is disallowed in the language of modernity. The Black witness accumulates a past that has already been thrown overboard. The Black witness brings the submerged past to the surface of the water, and then, rather than simply revealing it into the same light as the previous testimony, uses eyes that work underwater to see the Black testimony as something entirely different. The third position slips out of the frame of seeing itself as an outsider, and reconstructs a frame elsewhere, accumulating an alternative past. Freedom from freedom is the revolutionary act of the Black witness. The Black witness does not free herself by claiming the right to bear witness. Instead, she frees herself from that freedom, constructing a new foundation of the witness.

            vi.

The protests following the murder of George Floyd in the late spring and summer of 2020 focused on bearing witness to the event of Floyd’s murder. This politics of the witness is based on the Kantian ideality of space; based, that is, on the impossibility of the object ever being known. Presuming the object to be unknowable and absolutely other requires it to always be seen, even when seen by itself, from a third position that is excluded from contemporary presence in the scene. In modernity, in capitalism, that object is the slave.

            This Kantian politics of the witness will only ever achieve freedom. It will only ever be able to reach the position of freedom that is the right to bear testimony, the right to have existed: the right to survive. The only chains to shuffle off in Kantian liberalism are the chains of being disallowed access to oneself as object. But to gain that freedom is also to cease to be, because that act of bearing witness is also the act that brings the event into being; it is the act that retroactively marks the contemporary as the heir of a lost past, as a being that is now. It breaks now from the past.

            To gain freedom from freedom, to achieve a different kind of testimony that initiates the being of the slave, that brings the object into being and allows it to see itself with its own politics of witnessing, with a testament accurate to itself, no reform or withdrawal of funds will suffice. To ask the police to reform themselves, or for the government whose property the police serve to protect to begin debating changes, is to ask only that the slave bear witness to himself as slave. Instead, to fight for freedom from freedom, to initiate the autonomous and otherwise-being of the slave, to destruct the foundations of slavery and construct a world free from the chains of the freedom to bear witness to an impossible object, only total abolition will work.

            The abolition of the police is the only way to gain freedom from freedom, to bear (Black) witness to a past thrown overboard and construct a politics of seeing in the ocean, out of the slave-ship.


[1] J. Derrida, ‘“A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text”: Poetics and Politics of Witnessing’, pp. 179-207, in M. P. Clark (ed.), Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 186.

[2] J. Derrida, ‘“A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text”’, p. 187.

[3] I. Baucom, Spectres of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 176.

[4] H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1994 [1963]), pp. 223-224.

[5] G. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), p. 15.

[6] I. Kant, ‘An old question raised again: Is the human race constantly progressing?’, pp. 297-309, in A. W. Wood and G. Di Giovanni (trans. and ed.), Religion and Rational Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 308.

[7] J. Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. P. Kamuf(London: Routledge, 2006 [1993]), pp. 67-68.

[8] I. Baucom, Spectres of the Atlantic, p. 121.

[9] I. Baucom, Spectres of the Atlantic, p. 189.

[10] F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 2008 [1952]), pp. 84-85.

[11] I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 [1781/1787].

[12] P. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), p. 69.

[13] P. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, p. 69, citing Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960 [1845]), p. 56.

[14] P. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, p. 70.