The Other Scene of Emergency

Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter
June 2020 London

  07.06.20 Archive


To understand the month of June 2020, a month in pandemic time enfolded between Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter requires a reading of its political space as a double emergency. For what intervened in the lock-down of Covid-19 could only be described as another state of emergency, a People's Emergency.


The People's Emergency was as much a force beyond the state's jurisdiction as Covid-19 – an uncontainable surge of emotion following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the 25th May. Politicians here tried to distance the UK from America but failed. And so in the most abrupt of ways, London saw the return of something forgotten - the crowd. The crowd spilled out of lock-down into the capital's long empty centres. A common legacy of policing and death in custody could then be read clearly on the placards, The UK is not innocent. We were in a double emergency where the one called by the People eclipsed the one declared by the State.


Yet in its double dislocation from the normal, and by the severity of its contradictions, I also describe the month of June 2020 as the 'Other Scene of Emergency'. The Other Scene comes from the philosopher Étienne Balibar's book Politics and the Other Scene (2002). Balibar adapts the Other Scene from Freud as a freeform space where the repressed can be located and re-organised, in particular the return of the repressed in its regressive forms. The Other Scene provides a way for Balibar to connect past and present violence towards a new politics of an European civility that can “civilise” the State. It's that very project, of civilising the contemporary state that becomes a recurring theme through the emergencies of this pandemic, its Other Scene.



06.06.20 Archive


With George Floyds' death the state emergency broke and the people emerged. In an undefined space, out of lock-down yet still ruled by it, ideas that would be too subversive for the public domain established a footing. Defunding the police, removal of colonial-era monuments, an open attack on the vaults of history. A revolutionary imaginary opened up in the political present to address the unaddressed, ask the unpermitted.


What led us here was undeniably a state of heteronomy; heteronomy meaning the condition of being subjected to outside force – natural, divine or human. The heteronomy of Covid-19 plus Black Lives Matter by which the state's self-determination of its Will fell. This forced the opening of a civilisational crack; the unchallengeable in its denial began to turn.



  07.06.20 Archive


Of course neither in Britain nor in Europe was there the demographic weight or the momentum that Black Lives Matter could mobilise in America. But the force of the emergency derived from a territory of uprising that lay beyond the state - a trans-Atlantic space as from Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993). It's that space that pushed us to the defining moment of BLM June 2020 here - the downing of Colston's statue in Bristol. The impact of Colston was far more magnified and with a different significance to any single statue downing in the States. Something in the firmament gave way and required its catharsis in a theatre unimaginable prior to June 2020. On Good Morning Britain, this was an exercise of re-organising the inventory, of what could be taken out (Colston) and what was still sacrosanct (Churchill). On the BBC, as politicians absented themselves, pundits candidly discussed What do we do with statues linked to slave-traders? Nothing of this would have been possible without the single act of direct action.


In the preceding months, the pandemic even in its valorisation of key workers, even with 'the clap for our carers', had already rendered naked the racial ordering of society by the workplace. The demographics of those who must work through the pandemic to keep London going: besides the health services, the supermarket staff, bus drivers, Uber drivers, cleaners, security staff and so on. Given that is always how it was and would be, the social division continues to be managed through political neutralisation. The subject of institutional racism (whether in policing, housing, employment etc.) remained a site placed beyond political change. But June 2020 dug up the ground of how racism could be debated: the 'organic' status quo of division and segregation was exposed to open air. A space we hadn't looked into with such depth and intensity.



06.06.20 Archive


What emerged out of it was the extending life of racial consciousness pre-formed by the colonial. That required, as Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks the daily necessity of a “self-division”; or what W.E.B Du Bois at the start of The Souls of Black Folk referred to as living with “double consciousness”. Which Paul Gilroy for our contemporary times expressed as: “to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness”. Gilroy analysed double consciousness, via Du Bois' subject of the Pullman porter, as a social process with its 'special codes and disciplines' that reproduced black and whiteness for a then emerging middle-class. Through Du Bois, whiteness read as an evolving process that learnt to accommodate by the principle of racial exclusivity dependent on non-white labour to reproduce itself.


But the weight of the double emergency forced a coming to surface of its obverse, a counter-transference - whereby now, to re-phrase Gilroy, it read “striving to be both European and white requires some specific forms of double consciousness”. June 2020 felt as though we were witness to a 'fourth wave whiteness', a whiteness without coloniality adrift from the 'third wave whiteness' of France Winddance Twine and Charles Gallagher's The future of whiteness: a map of the 'third wave' (2007). By examining whiteness in waves, Twine and Gallagher tried to show the changing ways by which inequality remains unchanged (as a blind spot such that, “In the United States a majority of whites (71 per cent) believe blacks have ‘more’ or ‘about the same opportunities’ as whites”). And equally how “colour blindness as a political ideology is increasingly used to negate institutional racism or state reforms”. But after the BLM protests of 6th and 7th June, an unprecedented examination of whiteness in its production sites followed: white privilege, white fragility, and so on. The subject of race had never felt so naked yet anew. How was this manifested? Partly to an extent by the placard White Silence is Violence. The placard that was everywhere in the June 2020 protests, held by white hands.



07.06.20 Archive


By these factors it was clear that Black Lives Matter was no longer only a black civil rights movement, it had gone beyond that onto a different stage, of an all-encompassing political transformation. The pandemic had produced a belief in the coming of a 'new normal'. But if this wasn't an expected pathway, it became so by a providence beyond any state's will. The French state may have banned the BLM march of 13 June but thousands still marched. Paris was grid-locked. “We no longer want to suffer, but to build our future”, quoted a 20 years old, “It is up to us to change things, to choose the society in which we want to live. The future is us!


It's that generation, Generation Z, that is in effect the motor of transformation – that is, a generation as a class whereby age per se becomes an index of revolutionary agency. Where the idea of 'choosing the society in which we want to live' is the radicalizing dimension of a class that can conjugate the present and future. The material conditions that created Europe's GenZ are not only neoliberal globalisation with its austerity, the digital revolution with its social media, but also the War on Terror with its corollary of domestic policing. The open ended war that embodies racialised reason and the colonial present that is now the main renewal site of whiteness-blackness. The former in a revival of the “western civilisation = white culture” equation; the latter as the production in its turn in new social moulds - whether it's Eritreans or Iraqis in Copenhagen, Somali or Bangladeshi in east London, etc. This contemporary factory of racial production in its unsustainability now has its very own generation. It's this generation that longs for a future free of the colonial bind of double consciousness.



06.06.20 Archive


I have written the space of time we were in June as the Other Scene of Emergency; for that is what the thirty days of June 2020 really represented in this pandemic time. A heteronomous opening in which the politics of BLM here arguably had a pass. For its politics to be apolitical. So that #blacklivesmatter could be freely consumed. Corporate brands piled in with endorsements, even the hallowed brands of English tea. Yorkshire tea and PG tips competed for affiliation with BLM as 'teagate' showed up the media appropriation to overlook the modern slavery in the cup of tea with its human trafficking.
By the middle of June the limits of performative solidarity had been reached with calls to stop using the BLM hashtag. The Other Scene began to turn. We could see it when the BBC barred BLM badges from its screens at the end of the month. The partition that then came in view, the veiling and unveiling of the Real Scene as in a Marxist account, was the partition to the site of ongoing production of blackness and coloniality. Still there marked as either Taboo or Terror. Police Stop and Search only intensified during lockdown. The new Brexit immigration plan announced the 13th of July reinforced the Hostile environment.
But for June 2020 by the force of the double emergency, the space of the Other Scene had slipped over into the Real Scene. The overlap foregrounded the colonial fabric of the modern state. A fight for the future could no longer lie solely between the state and a project of its containment but in something beyond that.
For which the time of the pandemic has much more to give and some way to go.