Criminal Acts Are Systemic Not Exceptional

The recent Sean Bell verdict is one that students are interested in and willing to discuss in class.  It is a good example of the rhetorical use of definition and framing.

Many students have argued that the Bell case is one where people got away with murder.  But this term murder is a sloppy use of language.  There's a lot to be interrogated here in the way this term is used by those who believe this verdict was unjust.

Murder requires a lot of thinking, planning, and work to commit it in the first degree. It requires a lot of responsibility. To be a good murderer is to be responsible, in a strange sense.  This is why the law makes distinctions between negligent homicide, manslaughter, and murder.

The detectives involved in this case could not have murdered Bell because they were far from responsible.  They were drinking on the job.  They didn't identify themselves as police officers before they drew their guns on Bell. And they didn't follow procedure when Bell fled from them.

They are not murderers, they are worse than that. They are thoughtless. They are wreckless. And they probably felt it was justified to be that way since they carried state power as police officers.

The better way to critique them is on the level of racism.  Getting students to think of racism as something institutionally confirmed rather than exceptional and immediate is a challenge. This case is a way of engaging that question because of the race of the detectives (many of my students feel that only white people can be racist, or black people can  be racist vs. white people in the oddly named 'reverse racism,' etc but never black on black) as well as the way the justice system treated the witnesses as sketchy people instead of the detectives - who fires that many times at an unarmed person? Who fires that many times in the name of justice or order? What about the notion of the police to serve and protect? These questions can frustrate and anger some students as well as help others re-frame their criticisms of the State.

Why is the presumption that those who are out at a club late are criminal minded, not the ones who want to carry authorization to use a gun against other human beings?

Why were the witnesses called "inconsistent" rather than the detectives who continued to reload and shoot at a human being who was clearly no longer a threat to them?

These sorts of questions can really help the students think more in terms of the systemic and field-oriented rather than the incidental - the racist is not the exception could be a nice way to unravel the entire police system, implicating you and me as well as good "police."

Readings to go with this could be Gramsci as well as Ranciere's art and aesthetics interviews/writings. I think it's in a collection called The Politics of Aesthetics.