Every police car has a bit of slave ship in it.
On March 16, 2014, a thirty-eight-year-old black mother of eight named Cláudia Silva Ferreira was caught in the crossfire during a military police operation in the suburban community of Madureira in Rio de Janeiro. She was on her way to the neighborhood market to buy cold cuts and bread for her children. Before she was shot, neighbors screamed to the police officers that “she is a hard-working, honest woman” and begged them “don’t shoot” (Smith 2014). Yet the police officers shot her in the neck and back, severely wounding her. They waited until they finished their gun battle with suspected drug dealers before seeking medical care for Cláudia. They stuffed her—alive—into the hatchback trunk of their police car and drove her to the hospital. Cláudia’s family begged to go with her but the police refused.
On the way to the hospital Cláudia fell out of the trunk, but the police officers did not stop the car. Instead, they dragged her limp and wounded body for 250 meters until they reached a red light, where they stuffed her back inside. They dragged her so far that her legs were raw by the time she arrived at Carlos Chagas State Hospital. Thaís Silva, Cláudia’s daughter, was the first one to see her mother arrive lifeless at the hospital. “They dragged my mother like a bag,” Thaís reported, “and threw her into the car like an animal” (Heringer, Modena, and Hoertel 2014). Cláudia was dead on arrival.
Revisiting the death of Cláudia Silva more than one year later, we cannot help but notice the eerie and disconcerting resonance between what happened to her in the back of that police car in Brazil and what happened to twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore on April 12, 2015. When Gray was arrested, he was in need of medical attention. He was barely able to walk and complaining that he could not breathe. Like Silva, he was placed into the back of a police vehicle alive only to come out forty minutes later unresponsive, with his spine eighty percent severed at the neck. The injuries he sustained as a result of that fateful ride led to his eventual death one week later.
We live on a horizon of death that disintegrates black bodies into the unrecognizable, “consigned to the outermost fringe of reality” (Mbembe 2001, 173). The cognitive association between blackness and the nonhuman leads police officers to assume that twelve-year-old boys carrying BB guns on playgrounds and mothers going to the store to pick up cold cuts are lethal threats only containable by death (Graham and Lowry 2004).
The contemporary struggle for black survival returns us to the question of affect. For many of us, particularly black women, who bend under the weight of the threat or the reality of losing children to anti-black violence, the phrase “black lives matter” is a visceral, painful utterance of mourning that defines the gendered black experience across time and space (Rocha 2012; Perry 2013; Smith in press). The legacies of colonialism and slavery delimit black people as nonhuman (Wynter 1994). And this demarcation has lasting, devastating effects on our ability to survive. Only when we acknowledge this reality can we begin to comprehend the vast dimensions of #BlackLivesMatter (Garza 2014).
“I can’t breathe”: the last words that Eric Garner uttered before being choked to death by New York City police officers. They have become an incantation, a conjuring of the ghosts of state-sponsored racism. The resonance of these words and their affect momentarily draw our political focus away from the rhetorical questions of civil rights, body cams, and racial profiling back to the materiality of the black body in pain (see Scarry 1985) and black suffering.
On YouTube we are forced to watch Cláudia Silva, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner dying over and over again. The repetition mimics the looping of the Rodney King video or the circulation of lynching postcards across the United States in the twentieth century (Goldsby 2006). Performance has a strange relationship to anti-black state violence.
The deaths of Cláudia Silva and Freddie Gray are trans-temporal, trans-spatial repetitions—performances, so to speak—that replay scenes, plots and storylines of anti-black violence that occur and reoccur across time and space. They are scenarios of racial contact: moments of violent encounter when racialized bodies meet in performance zones defined by discourse, power, and action (Smith 2008). Anti-black police violence is that which “makes visible, yet again, what is already there: the ghosts, the images, the stereotypes” of the past, the present, and the future (Taylor 2003, 28). The death of Cláudia Silva haunts the death of Freddie Gray. Lethal police rides follow lines of articulation, flight, and movements of deterritorialization and destratification (see Deleuze and Guattari 1987) that genealogically take us back to slavery. Every police car has a bit of slave ship in it.
Faye Harrison (2014) notes that “the coercive dislocation and elimination of black people is an integral feature” of nation-state politics across our hemisphere. Throughout the Americas, police violence inscribes blackness onto the body and the landscape, marking black bodies and black spaces as expendable and violable while producing the nation-state at the site of the black body in pain.
In Brazil, the police kill more than six people per day, or 11,197 over the past five years (Forúm Brasileiro de Segurança Pública 2013). Approximately seventy percent of these victims are of African descent (Waiselfisz 2012). In the United States, by comparison, the police have killed 11,090 over the past thirty years. To be sure, fifty-one percent of the national population in Brazil is of African descent. Yet, discourses of anti-blackness inform state practices of violence that produce a horizon of black death that stretches into the United States (Ferreira da Silva 2009).
Allen Feldman (1991) contends that the interplay between violence and the body produces meaning in excess of repression and disempowerment during moments of state conflict. Bodies that are violated or violence-d are not simply fractured by this violence but also become, through these violent acts, coded with meaning. Freddie Gray, Cláudia Silva, Eric Garner, Jackson Carvalho, Tamir Rice, Joel da Conceição Castro, Aiyana Stanley-Jones: the repeated, spectacular, gendered killing and torture of working-class black people creates the very surface of our bodies and the boundaries of our worlds, melding us together emotionally and politically in uncomfortable ways. Black lives are the canaries in the mine.
We can’t breathe.
Christen Smith is Assistant Professor of African and African-American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.
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_____. 2014. “For Claudia Silva Ferreira: Death and the Collective Black Female Body.” Feminist Wire, May 5.
_____. In press. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
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