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“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”: Race, Power, and Deference to Authority in America

It’s distinctly possible that the specifically-focused protests in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in August to intense local and international popular outrage, have become extrapolated into a wider movement offering some form of pushback against endemic killings of black youths by white police across the United States. The protests that have sprung up across America and elsewhere have coalesced around a simple and resonant gesture/slogan: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”.

Although the Hands Up movement has been percolating in American social justice circles since Brown’s shooting in August and the street unrest that followed it, its scope has expanded greatly in the last couple of weeks after nearly consecutive grand jury decisions came down not to indict Wilson nor the NYPD officers involved in the death of African-American Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. In neither case were the victims of police “pacification” armed; in Garner’s case, there was clear, unambiguous video evidence of possible unnecessary force on the part of police (even some conservative commentators, rarely willing to denounce police violence when it’s directed at visible minorities, were shocked at the lack of charges). Other cases of fatal police violence are attracting more mainstream public interest as well, most notably the gut-churning shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November. After the grand jury in Missouri declined to pursue a prosecution of Darren Wilson, St. Louis Rams players controversially utilized the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson.

Leaving aside the particulars of each case or the divergent attitudes towards police authority and employing of violence that reactions to them reveal in ideologically-aligned groups, much is evident about the nature of American society and culture from the symbolic genesis of this protest movement. Most immediately striking is how an expression of supplication and deference to the implied threat posed by the armed subaltern of state power has become a volatile image of resistance to hegemonic discrimination. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, non-violent protest in America has focused on small, mundane, quotidian injustices, at least to begin with, rather than leaping immediately to larger-scale minority discrimination, where positive modifications to existing conditions are much less likely. So protestors initially fought for the right to sit wherever they wanted on a public bus or at a lunch counter rather than taking a grander, riskier stand against income inequality or housing discrimination.

Even taking this deeply-rooted incremental approach to wearing down the resistance of a white supremacist-tilted system into account, asserting the right to surrender to police without being abused or killed demonstrates not only how far America still has to go when it comes to reducing racial inequality but also how helplessly deferential even the beaten-down underclass of the country continues to be to the web of state power that oppresses them. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” emphasizes the fact that, in the case of Brown as well as of Garner and Rice, the deceased African-American males were uniformly unarmed (though Rice had a replica gun used to justify his gunning down) and inherently vulnerable. The police were in a position of power over them, and abused that power with fatal consequences.

But that inherent vulnerability and assumed position of power is an intertwined problem outside of the leveraging of consequence-free police violence against black male bodies. Whether their results are deadly or not, the built-in prejudices of state power in America are among the strongest factors in the denial of equal rights and protections under the law to African-Americans. The threat of violence on the part of the police compels deference from African-Americans at the least and self-damaging or self-incriminating obedience at the most. The Hands Up movement, though reliant on a potent image that has begun to see widespread penetration into the American cultural consciousness and may yet compel some fundamental shifts towards greater social justice, is predicated on a deference to the very state power whose chronic overreach that has made protest necessary. Very gradual change can be something worth believing in, but it’s not certain that the symbolic terms of this demand for change promise future rollbacks of discriminatory conditions in a way that is desirable.

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  1. January 6, 2015 at 4:15 pm

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