“We Can’t Breathe”: Performing Subjection in African American Protest Traditions

Mark Auslander
auslanderm@cwu.edu

       Following the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, millions around the world were transfixed by the spectacle of protesters on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri holding up their arms, chanting “Hands up! Dont shoot!, at times in call-response fashion. The mise en scene, repeated in protests after the Grand Jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson, might seem paradoxical: the predominantly African American demonstrators powerfully assert their rights to public space and to moral citizenship in the face of overwhelming paramilitary force, by performing a state of extreme vulnerability, reenacting the futile cry “Don’t shoot!” Thus, each protester becomes, in the space of this microcosmic ritual event, identified with the martyred African American young man. Within the ritual frame of the march, each unarmed protestor on foot—becomes a “dead man walking,” an eighteen year old young man of color cut down before his time. Within a week thousands of other demonstrators across the country had adopted the same stance of upraised arms and the call-response slogan, “Hands up! Don’t shoot”, reiterated in T-shirts and on placards, performed on university campuses, and at sporting events by team members, including the Redskins and the St. Louis Rams.

       The meme—“Hands Up! Don’t Shoot” is in some respects enigmatic. Is the leader’s call “Hands up!” taking on the voice of an armed police officer about to fire, or is it the voice of the victim, explaining he is in a position of surrender? Or are both positions, that of perpetrator and victim, being simultaneously asserted? A similar protest strategy has been adopted by those denouncing the death of Eric Garner, and the refusal of the grand jury to indict the police officer who placed him in the fatal chokehold. Protesters chant, “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s final words before his death. The statement, shouted out in concert by protesters, is metaphorically rich, expressing a general sense of suffocation by persons of color and their allies at the current moment. It quickly morphed, as in the Daily News headline, to the first person plural, “We Can’t Breathe.” Similarly, in the Trayvon Martin protests, multiple protestors wore a hoodie comparable to the clothing worn by the victim the night of his death, mimetically identifying with the lost youth at the moment of his unjust death.

       These contemporary protest tactics may be placed in a much longer history of African American ritual performance—dating back to the time of slavery. Repeatedly, activist women and men of color have, through organized spatial movement, traversed the borderlands between life and death, embodying a position of marked subjection, even involving the visceral miming of violent death, as a strategy for asserting or reclaiming their space within the larger polity.

 Antebellum Antecedents

       To some extent, the trope of dramatized subordination is historically anchored in the rhetorical and visual practices of white abolitionists, who often emphasized the abject subjugation of the enslaved. This imagery often centered on the spectacle of the slave auction block, upon which families were often depicted, in literature and iconography, as being brutally torn apart. Most famously, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Toms Cabin, young Emmeline is separated from her mother on the auction block and purchased by the lustful Simon Legree, in the same sale in which Tom himself is purchased.

       The central trope of the auction block was both contested and partly internalized by African American activists during the mid-nineteenth century. Consider the famous mock slave auctions held in New York City between 1848 and 1860 by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the most prominent Protestant preacher in America. At his well attended Sunday services Rev. Beecher would at times take on the role of a southern auctioneer, imploring his congregation to pledge money to redeem a light skinned black enslaved woman brought up to the pulpit, who would otherwise, he implied, be sold into the fleshpots of Savannah or New Orleans. These rather lurid spectacles received enormous coverage in the national press. Not surprisingly, there is evidence that the women of color “rescued” in this fashion were ambivalent about these performances throughout their lives, grateful to have been rescued from slavery yet deeply disturbed by having been the object of such intense, even licentious, pity (Auslander 2013:164-6).

       A striking contrast to Beecher’s mock auctions is seen in Charleston, South Carolina, soon after the city’s liberation by Union forces. On March 22, 1865, a vast procession of newly freed ex-slaves marched through the city to celebrate emancipation. The parade include a slave auction cart, in which an African American part played the part of auctioneer, “selling off” African American women and their children. Behind this was a second vehicle, a hearse bearing a coffin with the word “Slavery” written upon it, followed by men and women of color dressed in funereal attire. Contemporary reports indicate that African American audiences responded with both laughter and cries of anguish as the auction cart passed by (Auslander 2013, 2014a).

       The procession may be understood as a foray into experimental consciousness, as the newly liberated sought to make sense of a world in which they were now legally free but where the legacies of enslavement remained, most viscerally in the loss of sold-off children and in the enduring psychic scars of bondage. The paired wheeled vehicles, the spring cart and the hearse, function as sign vehicles into which personal and family histories of slavery’s violent ruptures are projected and to some extent laid to rest. Most significantly, in contrast to Rev. Beecher’s mock auction in the New York pulpit these two vehicles were under African American control, allowing an unfolding drama of mimetic subjugation and cathartic release.

Reenacting a Lynching: 2005-present

       I conclude with an annual large-scale reenactment of a lynching in rural Georgia in which hundreds of African-Americans since 2005 have spent a day moving in a motorcade across the proximate tragedy-ridden landscape to honor the martyred dead.   In so doing they tangibly reclaim the highways and byways where to their mind thousands of African Americans have been stopped and threatened with arrest, imprisonment, beatings or death for “driving while black” (Auslander 2014b).

       The annual event commemorates what is often termed the ‘last mass lynching in America’, when two young African American couples were ambushed and murdered by about fifteen white Klansmen in July 1946. The case has remain formally unsolved, although many local African Americans maintain they have a pretty good sense of the identity of the perpetrators.   In 2005, eager to attract media attention to catalyze official reopening of the case by the FBI, civil rights activists proposed reenacting the lynching.

       The initial plan was for a one time event, in which local whites would play the Klansmen and local African American would play the victims. However, since local white volunteers withdrew their participation at the last moment, in July 2005 all the Klansmen were played by local African American men, most wearing white hockey masks. The four victims were played by African American kinsmen and kinswomen of the actual murder victims.

       Since 2006, progressive white members of the peace and justice community have volunteered to play the Klansmen, recently supplemented by one African American woman, who dons a blond wig for the occasion. The victims are still played by African Americans, although in recent years, the players have mainly been replaced by Atlanta and Athens residents, since most local black women and men find it too painful and disturbing to enact these roles year after year.

       It is impossible to over-emphasize the horrors to which the “victims” are subjected during the rehearsals and performances each year. They are repeatedly screamed at with the N-word, pushed, shoved and subjected to mock beatings with rifle butts, and then dragged down a steep embankment to the river side site where the actual killings took place in 1946. Since none of the performers are experienced actors, there is considerable physical risk taken by the re-enactors each year. After they are ‘shot’ by a firing squad, the victims lie in the mud for up to ten minutes, as scores of audience members circle them, taking photographs.

       Although I have worked closely as an ethnographer since the year 2000 with this community, I cannot claim to fully understand what drives those who play the roles of the victims to take on this horrifying subject position, to embody such utter subordination and subjugation. Indeed, many of the reenactors, whom I consider to be my close friends, have emphatically told me as they lay face down in the mud, you cant understand what I feel inside me, that makes me do this thing. They have repeatedly emphasized that they need to do this on behalf not only of the four dead victims of the Klan in July 1946, but on behalf of the countless thousands of their “brothers and sisters” have been beaten, lynched, tortured and shot for no crime beyond the color of their skin. Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. And now, as the tenth reenactment approaches, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.

       In nearly all cases, those who reenact the victims enumerate a close relative who has been lost, to gang violence or to the prison-industrial complex. As Lucinda a woman in her 50s told me, “We do this for everyone we have lost, to honor them, to hold them close.” Her friend Jane, who lost her young adult son to an urban shoot out, concurs: “this reenactment. . . lets us hold on. We’re holding on to those who can’t be held.”

       The annual reenactment seems to offer the living performers, for all the indignities to which they must subject themselves, a chance for intimate connection, even reciprocal exchange, with the Dead, interpolating themselves into the Land of the Dead and then returning to this world. I am struck in this light by the utterance by Richard, a Moore’s Ford “victim” in 2008, as he lifted himself from the ground after the reenactment had concluded. He had been lying face down in muddy grass for many minutes, without motion. But as he stood up, he said, with wonder in his voice, “We come back to life, we come back to life” (Auslander 2010).

       Note the phrasing. Not “I come back to life” but “We come back to life.” Each re-enactor experiences, without question, an almost unbearably painful sense of individual alienation and terror as they perform being on the receiving end of racial hatred and racial violence. But in taking on that role of ultimate privation, paradoxically, they can attain a sense of shared return, or collective restoration, of restored common purpose.

Conclusion

       We are now in a position to reconsider the striking call-response sequence, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot” associated with the Ferguson protests, and the shared cry “I can’t breathe” in the Eric Garner protests. The seeming self-abnegation of the response, “Don’t Shoot” is a kind of inversion; no longer a plea from the vulnerable, it is a powerful command, on par with the ventriloquized command from the imputed police officer: “Hands up!” In this context, the plea is not a sign of surrender or vulnerability. Rather like the collective silence of the 1917 marchers, it is an expression of united strength and a determined insistence on a restoration of the moral polity. Rather than a singular cry of a victim on the verge of being shot to death, it is a declaration of solidarity, shouted out by a hundred, or a thousand voices. The speech act thus takes on qualities of a performance utterance, making true the very thing it describes: in ritual spacetime at least, the crowd of the righteous is able to stop an imagined speeding bullet in mid-flight. The power of Death is acknowledged; indeed the protesters do seem to journey into the domain of the Dead as they march for a moment alongside the spirit of the dead young man. Yet they do not linger in Hades forever, and as they shout out in unison they are manifestly alive. Similarly, the cry “I can’t breathe”, sometimes transformed into We can’t breathe!” by the marching crowd, is redolent of the moment of individual death and collective oppression, yet also of collective solidarity.

       In this respect, these repeated sequences share some qualities with Richard’s declaration at the conclusion of the Moore’s Ford lynching reenactment, We come back to life. We come back to life. Out of the tragic scenario of death comes a powerful performed oration of social regeneration and rebirth, even at the moment when vast ruptures in the moral economy of the nation are being dramatically unveiled.

Between Night and Day: Exhibiting Homelessness in Ellensburg, WA

Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment, 2007 (Photo Credit:  Ellen Schattschneider)

References

Auslander, Mark.
          2014 a. Give me back my Children: Traumatic Reeanactment and Tenuous Democratic Public Spheres. North American Dialogue (Society for the Anthropology of North America) 17:1, pp. 1-12.
          2014 b. Driving Back into the Light: Traversing life and death in a Lynching Reenactment by African Americans, in the edited volume, Vehicles: Cars, Canoes and other Metaphors of Moral Imagination (edited by David Lipset and Richard Handler) Berghahn Books
         2013   Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic Living History Reenactments, Signs and Society. 1 (1). pp.161-183
        2011. “Holding on to Those Who Cant be Held: Reenacting a Lynching at Moores Ford, Georgia (Southern Spaces)