In addition to my work as a visual artist, I also teach college-level writing and have been doing so for more than thirty years. Every semester, in one of my Freshman Composition courses, I show Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing. It’s the fulcrum on which the semester balances, with writing assignments coming before and after the showing, as both preparation for, and processing of, the ideas raised by the film. Considering the widely publicized extra-judicial police killings of the past few years, the film has become more relevant than ever to my students, young people of color, almost all Black and Hispanic, residing, for the most part, in South L.A., Compton, Carson, and other communities not all that different from the Bedford-Stuyvesant circa 1989 that we see in the film. These are areas where the police are a presence, but a presence of a certain kind. Of the many digressions in the film—tangents from the plot line concerning Sal, Mookie, Buggin’ Out, Radio Raheem, and photographs on the pizzeria’s wall-of-fame—one in particular stands out as a paradigm of the relationship to power that some, perhaps many, of my students live.
Until the final sequences of Do the Right Thing, the police are a presence mostly by virtue of their absence. Not that we can’t find plenty of low-grade law-breaking going on. Coconut, ML, and Sweet Dick Willie loiter openly on a street corner; the doomed Radio Raheem is a walking noise violation; Da Mayor hires a ten-year-old boy to buy him beer from the corner bodega; Mister Señor Love Daddy runs a bootleg radio station through a picture window, hiding in plain sight. The police do nothing about any of it. A squad car rolls down the street every now and then, making its rounds, keeping its distance, letting it all unfold. At no point do we get the feeling that the officers inside are contemplating action. No one’s getting hurt, and it’s hotter than hell. Why get out of the car?
For the residents of the neighborhood, there’s even a kind of freedom in this not-so-benign neglect. Drink beer on the street, make too much noise: nothing is going to happen to you. But then a couple of kids open a fire hydrant in order to get some relief from the heat. A middle-aged Italian in a Cadillac convertible appears at the end of the block. In typical New York fashion, full of threats and hand-waves and swearing, he negotiates safe passage down the street. But at the very last minute, just as he seems to have made it past danger, the kids douse him with the full force of the water, flooding his classic Caddy, and run off.
Soaked, apoplectic, he stumbles out of the ruined car, and the two officers are suddenly there. Our Italian wants an arrest; in fact, he wants the kids “locked under the fucking jail.” He wants, in other words, the full force of the law to come down hard on the people who have wronged him. And why shouldn’t he expect it to do so? He’s white and at least moderately wealthy, the cops are white, and the perps are just a couple of Black kids from the ghetto, without any status or identity. “What the fuck do I know their names?” he yells. “Moe and Joe, Moe and Joe . . . Moe and Joe Black, how’s that?”
But the cops are laughing, and our Italian is getting angrier, because he’s beginning to realize where he is. One of the cops walks off to take care of the open hydrant; the other closes his notepad. The police can only make a suggestion: drive away before “these people” strip your car down to nothing—in other words, before they commit another crime that the enforcers of the law will do nothing to prevent or remedy. Underneath their façade of civility and service, these cops must be laughing uproariously to themselves. Enforce the law? Here? We don’t enforce the law here. Where in the fuck do you think you are?
Of course, we know where he is: one of those zones of abandonment that we find in cities all over the world, a place where the law doesn’t apply because the structure of power has decided that the people who live there aren’t worthy of it. The man of privilege in his Cadillac convertible no doubt feels, after the great trauma of his encounter, that it’s he who has been abandoned, who has been allowed to suffer the violations of “these people.” But he’s only someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s “these people” who are hung out to dry, every day of their lives. The neglect of the police is an unmistakable sign that one is not fully human in the eyes of the law. “These people” are something less than people, human-not-quite-human, inhabiting a zone of indistinction where the law no longer applies, but where power never ceases to reign—and to reign with the potential of an excessive, terrifying, deadly force that can be visited upon “these people” at any time and for any reason. This is power raised to the level of an obscenity.
Everyone knows the famous final sequences of Do the Right Thing. Sal and Radio are fighting on the sidewalk, and when the cops arrive—the same two cops, plus others, all white—they kill Radio Raheem with a chokehold. The Italian in the Cadillac has gotten his wish; one of “these people” will now forever be “under,” in its most permanent manifestation: consigned to the grave. Obviously this isn’t justice; it’s raw force, with a message behind it. Once again we are faced with the paradigm of abandonment: abandonment by the law, abandonment to power. The actions of the police are a way of saying: we don’t find you worthy of the interest of the law, and we certainly don’t find you worthy of protection by the law, but we will, if we feel like it, very simply kill you.
This zone of indistinction is what the Italian theorist Giorgio Agemben means by the term “state of exception.” He defines the human subject captured within this state homo sacer, or sacred man—sacred not in the sense of being deserving of veneration (quite the opposite), but in the sense of being set apart, excluded. Reaching back to Roman law, Agemben cites the formulation of sacred man as he who may be killed but not sacrificed: the guilty man, no longer worthy of the religious rites that normally accompany an execution, can be killed by anyone, legally. Today, of course, executions don’t rely on sacred rites; instead, we read the sentence. The contemporary iteration of sacred man is he who is excluded, in practice, if not in theory, from the law, but whom just about anyone can kill with impunity: Radio Raheem, for instance, or Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, or any of “these people” who have been, in effect, found guilty in advance. All they do have is what Agemben terms “bare life,” the mere fact of being alive and human—more or less human, that is; human-not-quite-human. For many of us, bare life is the foundation for an empowered existence as citizens with rights. But for those whom power has determined to exclude, bare life is just about their only possession.
An African-American young man sits in a broken-down pick-up truck, one hand on a jury-rigged steering wheel, his hat pulled down over his eyes. A burning tire is on the roof of the cab, the flames licking up past the top edge of the image frame. Someone has smashed out the windshield and windows and torn the handle clean off of the door. It doesn’t seem possible that this vehicle will ever take him anywhere, but he, like my students, is holding on to the wheel, determined to drive.
John Rosewall, Drive, 2016