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The Passive Voice
Reflections on the George Floyd uprising
I recently read a piece of commissioned writing at Dissenter Space in Edinburgh, at an event called Voices in Buildings. I was one of a few performers giving a reading in conversation with a group of improvising musicians for an audience sitting around and among us. The strangeness of Dissenter Space—an old office building with no one in it but a security guard—provided an atmosphere I couldn’t hope to replicate in print. It suited me perfectly.
The piece I read was pulled together from notes made in 2020 during the George Floyd uprising, reflecting on the history of American citizenship and its relationship to slavery. The causes of racist state violence and Black American resistance to it have a material basis of course, but our understanding of them is mediated by a dense web of assumptions and ideological sleight of hand—like a police report written in the passive voice. The disconnect between the material and the ideological is the subject of these notes.
You can listen to ‘The Passive Voice’ here. The piece also featured in a recent episode of my radio show Red White Blues: an Anthology of America’s Music, where I play the whole of Charles Mingus’s record The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. We’re up to episode five now and there’s a lot more in the pipeline about jazz, oil and the making of American power. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so here. I’ve also started an Instagram where I’ll post the show notes and other fragments of research from the project.
Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction
May 25, 2020 (MINNEAPOLIS) On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 pm, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.
Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.
At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in to investigate this incident at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department.
No officers were injured during the incident.
Body worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.
Glasgow, 24 May 2020. I click on a news headline about police brutality in Minneapolis: <FBI INVESTIGATES DEATH OF BLACK MAN AFTER FOOTAGE SHOWS OFFICER KNEELING ON HIS NECK>. ‘In the footage the man, later identified as George Floyd, 46, can be heard to shout “I cannot breathe” and “Don’t kill me!” He then becomes motionless, eyes closed, face-first on the road.’
A couple of days later, unrest spread across fourteen cities after police in military-grade armour violently responded to what began as peaceful protests. Now, on 3 June, that unrest has spread across the US to 140 cities. Watching from the other side of an ocean, my eyes and brain and stomach glued to Twitter, I remember the feeling of living there—the feeling of standing on a mass grave, the feeling of standing on a powder keg, the feeling of barely concealed violence. And I definitely don’t feel better than what I left behind. On the contrary, I sort of walked off the job.
While the media’s hot takes alternate between blaming out of state white anarchists, to the shit-for-brains assertion of Russian meddling, most of us know what’s going on. Like the civil rights movment of the last century, as well as the reaction to it, the call is coming from inside the house. And reciting this unfolding history in the passive voice won’t change that.
In Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Amiri Baraka’s 1963 study of African-American music and citizenship, he uses the blues and jazz to chart what he calls ‘the path from slave to “citizen”’ to discover something about ‘the nature of American culture’. He points out that this path was narrow and there was no turning back, knowing, as African Americans did, what America was capable of. The scare quotes draw attention to how that path to citizenship disappeared under the feet of the people walking it. He says:
What is so often forgotten in any discussion of the Negro’s “place” in American society is the fact that it was only as a slave that he really had one. The post-slave society had no place for the black American.
Published the same year that the jazz composer Charles Mingus released his masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Baraka later cites Mingus’s work as an example of how Black American art music ‘is always radical in the context of formal American culture.’
Amiri Baraka’s focus on jazz is significant. In 1963 when Blues People was published, the CIA was waging a cultural Cold War against the Soviet Union, sending Black American jazz musicians to non-aligned and Eastern Bloc countries to show how cultured and not-racist the US was. They also made the fatuous claim that jazz, with its interplay of extremely skilled soloists, was an analogue to American liberal democracy.
But American liberal democracy, like any form of imperialism, was built on exploitation and fantasy. The illusion that most of the world toils freely and voluntarily to produce wealth for a tiny fraction of capitalists can only be sustained if we don’t acknowledge the plain fact of what our eyes and ears and bodies tell us. We have to believe in something bigger, something obscuring what’s right there on the surface, unseen because it’s unsought, something so destructive of sight that nothing true is visible until it cuts through our flesh or burns us awake. In other words, we dream until we choke. The passive voice becomes a weapon. Jazz does not equal democracy—at least not American democracy. The band stops mid-song in a violent crash of cymbals.
The production of recorded music as a commodity produces in its turn a whole language of consumer tastes, with each record a unit of its vocabulary. No one expects to be understood if they’re speaking with words that no one understands, so jazz embodied a tension between popular music and art music, because even the people playing the most dissonant skronk meant for those in the know had to sell enough records to the the squares to eat and pay rent.
And American jazz records are haunted by the ghosts of the people who made them—not just the musicians but the engineers, the lacquer cutters, the metalworkers producing the raw materials of the instruments and microphones, the construction workers who built the studios and venues, and of course the far-flung producers of petroleum, on which the entire political economy of the post-war United States revolved.
I’m looking for a copy of Charles Mingus’s masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, recorded and released as an LP in 1963. Flipping through Discogs, I find a first US stereo pressing in perfect condition—for £206.04. I would never spend that much money on a record even if I could afford it. I keep looking and find a UK Mono pressing from 1964 in Near-Mint condition for £80—a day’s wages.
The thing with vinyl (so the thinking goes) is that the closer you get to the original pressing, the better the sound will be. So collectors generate a fetish for “pure analog”, a supposedly faithful reproduction of what it was like to be in the room when the sound was recorded—hence the notion of “fidelity”. It’s ridiculous because all recorded sound is mediated, which is why we call it “media”; and of course so is the way we hear.
Part of this fetish includes the weight of the vinyl itself, with the gold standard being 180 grams. There’s a kernel of truth in this, but no vinyl can make bad music sound good. In the early sixties, when Mingus recorded Black Saint, audio technology had developed to a high standard of analog recording, with related advances in LPs and sound systems. Music industry executives were in the business of selling not music but records. In a competitive market, they advertised the superior quality of a record’s manufacture. By “adding value” to the medium of long-playing polyvinyl chloride discs, record companies increased their profit.
Then in October 1973 the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries led by Saudi Arabia introduced an oil embargo. They halted sales of crude oil to Western countries supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. While this itself didn’t actually affect the price of oil very much, it allowed the US State Department and the big oil monopolies (known as the Seven Sisters) to manufacture a quote-unquote “energy crisis” that sent the price of a barrel soaring by 400%. The shock sent petroleum-reliant economies like the US and the UK into recession. Petrol stations jacked up their prices dramatically, introducing caps on how much you could buy at the pump. Consumer spending plummetted, while inflation skyrocketed and wages stagnated. (Sound familiar?) And seeing as everything is made of plastic, and plastic is made from oil, suddenly the overheads on producing vinyl records spiked in line with the price of crude. Everything from the magnetic tape used to record music to the shrink-wrapped record you picked up at the shop was petroleum-based, and the high cost of these materials ate into profits.
As a result, from 1974 vinyl got thinner to keep the cost down to something like an affordable retail price. Scrolling down the column of releases of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady on Discogs, I can afford the ones pressed after 1973 with the cheapest editions being for the most part from this past decade. But even within these newer editions the price fluctuates according to their rarity and the validity of their claim to be <pressed using the original master tapes>.
Two legal principles underpin the framework of contemporary Western citizenship. The first is jus sanguinis or “the right of blood”. This principle is used to establish nationality based on family relation to other members of that nationality. A timely example is British people applying for Irish citizenship post-Brexit based on their relationship to parents or grandparents who came here from Ireland. The second principle is jus soli or “the right of soil”, which establishes nationality based on birth in that country. Most European countries legally define citizenship through some blend of these two principles. In the United States a person born in the country, regardless of the status of their parents, is automatically granted US citizenship—more or less.
Historically, each arrival at Ellis Island represented a break with Europe, with the past, a self-blazed fork in the road where these Europeans became Americans—and became white. Very few Americans peer backwards through the lens of time without the aid of an accommodating culture ringing off the acceptable bounds of national storytelling, or a narrow tracing of genetic heritage. Pride in our supposed greatness as a country is implied through countless variations of the same coming-of-age story in which our national maturity follows the progress of a grand idea—of Democracy—seemingly guided by some hidden hand. We feel a part of something bigger, but not too big to see in its entirety. God’s will is mysterious, but not inscrutable. We’re invited to sit at the table. The lotus is delicious.
In April 1964, Malcolm X delivered a speech known today as ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’. He skewers the origin myth that draws equivalence between descendants of European immigration and the enormity of chattel slavery. Addressing a Black audience in supra-national terms, he calls into question the “right of soil” underpinning American citizenship. He says:
I am one who doesn’t believe in deluding myself. I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. … Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American. Why, if birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation; you wouldn’t need any amendments to the Constitution; you wouldn’t be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now. They don’t have to pass civil-rights legislation to make a Polack an American.
So what is it that makes Americans? Michael Sawyer in Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X, says that ‘democracy, by its nature, requires that there be those outside of its logic in order to establish the separation between citizen and non-citizen’. In the UK as well as the US, as in any empire, it’s not our victims who live in the shadows but rather we who live in the shadow of what we’ve done to them. We’re citizens inasmuch as we can stake some small claim in the idea of the nation. That can mean actually possessing something beyond an idea, or kidding yourself that you do. Citizenship in this respect is a gloss over property relations.
The citizen is the corollary of the slave.
It’s no coincidence that the notion of citizenship, of an individual’s legal status in relation to the state, came into being at the same time and in the same place as institutionalised, codified slavery. The conception of citizenship has never included everybody; on the contrary, it was built around the exclusion of the very people who laboured to make civic life possible.
Western civilisation, as the Right like to remind us, began in the polis of classical Athens. Democracy demanded the political participation of the Demos, that fraction of the city-state’s male population who owned property. Slavery and the servitude of women freed these men from the base concerns of the material world. Rights, privileges, and even one’s place in the cosmology were determined by economic status: to be human was to be in possession of property; all others were property.
The Romans adopted and extended the Athenian conception of citizenship. For much of Rome’s bloody historical development the civitas as a “public entity” in reality operated to disenfranchise all but landowning nobility. Then in 212 AD the Emperor Caracalla issued an edict granting all free inhabitants of the wide-ranging empire Roman citizenship. Historians don’t quite know why, but it’s a fairly safe bet that generosity had nothing to do with it. And while Rome boasted an extremely elaborate hierarchy of citizenship, apportioning limited rights to all but property-owning full Roman citizens, there was only ever one kind of slave.
Slaves built the pyramids at Giza, the Parthenon overlooking Athens, and the monumental ruins of Roman architecture. All the wonders of the classical world come courtesy of a nameless, numberless human surplus. The United States, too, was built, founded, forged, farmed, milled and minted with the blood of forced labour. The president, the ultimate citizen, currently sits in a White House easily recognised by its neo-classical columns and porticos, signing stimulus bills to print money that tells a three-word lie about unity in the language of antiquity.
Slavery and genocide leave a gaping hole in American history, because the life of the past is only recognisable, as are any lives, when they count, when we can recognise them as real and relate to them. It’s nearly impossible to intuit how slavery underpins our own self-understanding as citizens, because it’s impossible by definition to identify with dark matter. And dark matter accounts for most of what we are.
When people ask me why I live over here, they’re really asking me why I would leave the golden pastures of the United States. I don’t believe in the America you see in the movies, the same way a person from the UK doesn’t live in Downton Abbey. I don’t buy the narrative about America because I know it too well. An insurrection sparked in Minnesota is not just history in the making, it’s part of the slow revelation of a history unpacked. And I take it with me wherever I go. Like the subject of all great American drama, the glittering façade is just that. People want to believe, maybe even need to believe, that there is a place where they could be happy, where they could walk tall and live in dignity, if only they could just get there...
But despite the white teeth and inscrutable optimism—or perhaps because of them—my America is a sad place, and that’s maybe the most damning thing you can say about it. My America has been walking around on broken legs for decades, broke down on broken crutches. My America’s number one export is a narrative about itself that is as popular at home as it is abroad. My America is drunk on powerlessness: the ruling class chatter compulsively about diversity to hide the fact that they’ve got a knee on someone’s neck. My America has a problem with its own neck that means it can’t look backwards. My America’s view is parallax like looking out of the window on a train travelling at speed where the objects in close range seem to race past while objects in the middle distance shift slowly across a horizon that appears not to move at all. My America thought Louis Armstrong smiled because he liked them. The pursuit of happiness is making everybody miserable in my America. My America would do better to open its eyes and ears and nose and smell the gangrene before it sets in. My America is in the grip of a seizure. Be careful around my America because I’m pretty sure it’s contagious. My America is a wall cavity full of hidden bodies. Most of them are alive—at least the ones we need to worry about. The body is a devalued currency in my America. Flood waters wash them up like coins churned from the bottom of a wishing well. My America has got its head in the sand and claims it can see the stars. My America looks up at the night sky and sees a single moon shining. But the moon doesn’t shine. Waxing and waning, it reflects the light of a massive fire. And there’s only so long you can sleep, dreaming of golden pastures, before the house burns down.