Talk In Portland About the “Abolition of Law”

The following talk was delivered by Nevada in Portland, OR on the evening of September 11th 2022:

“Uprisings are the only time you ever learn anything new. Then you have months, or years, or decades of aftermath during which you have to keep drawing on the moment of rupture. Intellectual, social, and cultural leaps forward happen at these moments of maximum collectivity; and then we’re just putting together the pieces, or singing praise songs, or wondering what exactly went down for a while after.”

—Hannah Black

Earlier this year, I published a book called The Abolition of Law, which is one of my contributions to this effort described by Black. The book uses the experience of the George Floyd uprising, the experience of these leaps forward, to draw some potential conclusions about what abolition means today.

I assume most people here are familiar with the George Floyd uprising, at least in general, if not specifically what happened in Minneapolis, my hometown and where I’ve lived for the last several years. But as I speak to you today, it’s over two years in the rear-view mirror, even if it doesn’t feel so long in my heart. So I’ll quickly go over it.

On May 25th 2020, four officers from the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd in cold blood. The next day, a huge protest descended on the local precinct, and immediately began breaking its windows and destroying the cars parked in its lot. Clashes with the police were initiated on sight, and went on late into the night, which is also when the first store was looted. The next day, the clashes continued and escalated, the looting continued and escalated, and by the end of the night, several buildings were on fire. Not only was the area around the precinct effected, but many parts of the city were seeing looting and vandalism. People were getting in their cars and driving to different parts of the city to loot stores while police were unable to respond. The next day, everything continued to escalate and expand, rioting was happening in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, with stores are being looted all over the entire metro area. And as everyone knows, by the end of this night the precinct was overrun and set on fire. Yet even this was not the climax—the next day, again it escalates and expands. A new precinct is targeted, this time fully defended by the National Guard. Unfortunately, this precinct remains standing, as order reemerged on the fifth day of unrest.

Why did order reemerge so suddenly, after we had come so far? Obviously there are many factors and I won’t cover all of them. But the most important one in my view, and this is essentially what the book is about, is the counter-insurgent propaganda spread by the state. As the fourth straight night of revolt came to a close, the Governor of Minnesota held a press conference blaming the violence on outside agitators, but since we’ve all heard that line before he decided to be more specific—white supremacist outside agitators. Yes, he tells the world that in fact it was nazis flocking from around the country to set our police stations and stores on fire. Most shocking of all, many people believed him.

The difference between the fifth night of the uprising—which in my view is its last night—and the nights before is that instead of people collectively defying the curfew, and organizing to support those taking on more active roles in the uprising like being medics or providing shelter if not taking on those roles themselves, people were now organizing to enforce the curfew, and protect property against potential threats.

This wouldn’t be a particularly surprising turn of events, especially in America where property is sacred and black lives are not, except for one detail. Rather than imagining themselves as the conservative defenders of America against the unruly hordes, in a classically racialized way, many of these people perceived themselves as participants of the uprising itself. There are more details in the book of course, but the gist is this: the state displaced the existence of “white supremacy” outside of itself and onto an external enemy, “white supremacists,” to reposition itself as a neutral entity. So “fighting white supremacy” then became less about destroying the systems that uphold it, and more about fighting the individuals who believe in it.

If it’s not clear, let me say that these supposed white supremacists were almost entirely non-existent on the ground. And the few that did exist had no interest in the destruction of property, instead they were most often fighting side by side with the “anti-fascists” against suspected looters and arsonists. And while those defending property often did so under the guise of “protecting minority-/black-owned businesses,” the truth is that banks, corporations, and white-owned businesses benefitted by far the most. This is true on a metaphysical level where the white capitalist order benefits from the preservation of the regime of property, but also on a literal level, such as when the American Indian Movement organized patrols to protect native institutions yet only found themselves intervening at chain grocery stores and liquor stores, for example.

It is in this context that we can clearly see how self-policing—the idea of the community policing itself—forms the nexus in which police abolition and police enforcement fuse and become one and the same. And thus, many people and groups would claim loyalty to “the uprising” while in fact they organized to crush it.

So essentially what we saw was how an explicitly anti-racist discourse was mobilized on a mass level to defend a structurally racist system. The insufficiency of our current conceptions of race, identity, fascism and anti-fascism has never been more clear than when these ideas are mobilized to effectively crush an uprising for black liberation. In fact, our predominant understandings of race—including whiteness and white privilege—actually reinforce the anti-black apparatuses that the uprising was laying waste to. This is what Idris Robinson clarifies so sharply in his foundational “How It Might Should Be Done,” when he said “identity politics, intersectionality, and social privilege discourse” are all “modalities of the police.”

These discourses put us at a disadvantage for understanding how a white person helping loot a store or burn a building is doing an immeasurable amount more to fight anti-blackness than a person of color who picks up a gun to stop looters. This is because the fight is not of moral individuals, but of a whole structure that needs to be toppled—and that structure is premised on the fundamental entanglement of whiteness and property. (Yet I should remind everyone that the white rioters and the property defenders of color were still generally their respective minorities.)

Once we reorient ourselves to this understanding, we are confronted with the perennial idea of race treason. That is, of figuring out how white people can participate in the undoing of racist systems, to put it simply. As I argue in the book, the uprising provided very concrete ways for imagining this: by taking up this fight against the state and the regime of property that constitutes whiteness in the first place.

In the book I look to Dylan Robinson—who is serving a couple more years of prison time before being burdened with a lifelong debt for his alleged role in setting fire to the precinct—as an example of a white person who has openly taken up this fight and is now facing the consequences for it. Who can still speak of an immutable white privilege when he received such a harsher sentence than his black codefendants? His case is not exceptional—I’m sure everyone in this room could name someone who paid the ultimate price for their revolutionary convictions despite their skin privilege.

Of course, I don’t mean to valorize such sacrifices. It would be entirely inadequate to only imagine race treason as possible through such actions. Indeed, what does it look like when there isn’t even a revolt to join? As the authors Shemon and Arturo pointed out, “while the ultra-left has correctly oriented itself towards the riots, and is in sync with the Black proletariat in highpoints of struggle, the white ultra-left returns to a segregated way of life during times of quiet.” There is a clear need for a race treason of the everyday, easily demonstrated by the racial makeup of our social milieus and radical spaces. In Oregon, whose history of racial covenants still persists today, this task appears as urgent as ever.

When addressing the idea of race traitors, Idris Robinson recently spoke of their “total immersion” in revolt. While Idris is likewise speaking to a moment defined by insurrection, I want to ask if it is possible to immerse oneself beyond such a historical rupture? I read Marcello Tarì articulating something along these lines, in his recently translated book There Is No Unhappy Revolution. He writes:

“[W]hat it would mean to interrupt a demonstration, a march, a strike, an assembly? But even this is not enough; we need to understand what it would mean to interrupt any activity or relation at all: writing, a job, painting, a friendship, a love affair. Taking a position a hundred times a day, living in the state of exception: this is what living in revolutionary time means. This does not mean losing oneself in “activism” or being a slave to voluntarism. On the contrary, it means gaining the time and space in which one can truly listen to the angel’s murmur and contemplate the world, in order to be able to make a decision.” (pg. 160)

This interruption, as Tarì calls it, seeks to collapse the separation between theory and praxis, between thinking and being and acting. We will have to challenge ourselves on every level, to create a way of life that undoes the forces of order that construct the anti-black world we live in.

Yet, this is not a call for some sort of internal, individual solution to structural racism. Tarì clarifies “to think that it can only consist of an inner phenomenon is a dangerous illusion.” This is the grift of every How To Be Anti-Racist seminar or self-help guide. Instead this other way of life will have to be constructed in common, both materially and spiritually. I believe this will be what allows us to develop a real abolition, an abolition from below rather than one based on policy. An abolition that entails entirely new ways of being and living together, a complete transformation of ourselves, as well as the total destitution of the structures that order the world as it is.

Of course, this is still barely a gesture at such a life, because such a life would be impossible to define in advance, and even if it were, I don’t think of myself to be in a position to describe it. Yet I have found it deeply informative to pay attention to what we could call the “molecular” continuations of the uprising—especially with regard to what I would call “ante-politics” after Fred Moten and those inspired by him—to imagine this kind of transformation of daily life. Ante-politics is way to describe the power or potential that has escaped capture so far or that has not yet been subsumed into the political sphere. One is not communicating a demand of a governing body, but purely transforming their world in real time. Such transformation is not a goal to achieve, but is immanent to the practice itself.

After publishing The Abolition of Law, a friend and I wrote at length about sideshows in Minneapolis and what they could teach us in this regard. Quickly for those who are unfamiliar, sideshows (or takeovers) are events where people show off their cars mostly doing burnouts and donuts for crowds in parking lots and intersections. Beyond just their incredible tactical innovations, what I want to focus on is the ways in which they have developed ways of being together that don’t rely on police or the law because their existence depends on keeping the police at a distance. While it would be entirely possible for a new law to emerge from within this space, what I’ve seen is precisely the opposite. We referred to this as “self-regulation” to note how it differs from self-policing or the creation of a new transcendent law.

This isn’t to say that sideshows are prefiguring the world we wish to see, but that they offer, among many things, the ability to imagine ways of being together that don’t replicate the law. No one decides what is or isn’t allowed to happen. Sure, some people might provide feedback towards something they do or don’t like happening, and that feedback may indeed be forceful, but it never solidifies into a law. And certainly, no one will try to hand you over to the police because they don’t like what you did.

This solidification of law is the constituent process that must be resisted at every turn, during and beyond the insurrection. Revolt does not pose a new law, but rather undermines it, deactivates it, reduces it to a plaything. The revolt does not construct a new fort—and if you find yourself doing so, you are likely confusing it with the counter-revolution. No, not a fort: The insurrection only exists as the surround, “the common beyond and beneath—before and before—enclosure.” And what we surrounded was not only the 3rd Precinct but also white civil society as a whole.


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