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 time of a national lockdown invoked as a state of emergency could only be described as another state of emergency, a People's Emergency.

 

The People's Emergency was as much a force that lay outside the state's jurisdiction as Covid-19 – an uncontainable surge of pent-up 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 of the occluded repressed in its regressive forms. The Other Scene provides a space for Balibar to connect the regressive past in present violence for an understanding of its contributive place in the contemporary State and towards re-thinking a new politics of an European civility that can “civilise” the State. It's that very project, of civilising the State that becomes the subject in the time of the state's use of emergency powers in a pandemic.

 

 

06.06.20 Archive

 

With George Floyds' death it was the State invoked state of emergency that was broken by an emergence of the people. In an undefined space, out of lock-down yet still ruled by it, the repressed as ideas that would have been otherwise taboo to hear in the public domain found the space to establish a footing. A revolutionary imaginary opened up in the political present to enable an assault on the vaults of enshrined history. In the Other Scene, it became possible to address the unaddressed, ask the unpermitted with demands for defunding the police, removal of colonial-era monuments and so on.

 

What led us here was undeniably a form of heteronomy; heteronomy meaning the condition of being subject to an 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 constraint of the Unchallengeable began to wane.

 

 

  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 peoples' emergency arose from a territory of uprising that lay beyond the judisdiction of any one state - a trans-Atlantic space as from Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993). It's that transnational transborder space that pushed us towards the defining moment of BLM in Britain on June 7 - 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 media theatre unimaginable prior to June 2020. On Good Morning Britain, this was an exercise of re-organising the inventory of national heritage, 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 Colston, without the single act of direct action.

 

In the preceding months, the pandemic even by its fake valorisation of key workers, even with 'the clap for our carers' ritual, had already rendered naked the segmentation of the British workplace. We were shown what we already know. Covid-19 made clear the racial demographics of those who had no choice but to work through the pandemic lockdown so as to keep London going: as health workers, as supermarket staff, as bus drivers, Uber drivers, as cleaners, security staff and so on. But the reality of social division however transparent could be managed by strategies of political neutralisation. The subject of institutional racism whether in policing, housing, employment is a form of protected ground. But June 2020 dug up the ground; the 'settled' space of a status quo became exposed to an open air in a national lockdown at least to change the terms on how it could be debated.

 

 

06.06.20 Archive

 

A doubled-up state of emergency was a probe on the endlessly extending life of racial consciousness 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”. Paul Gilroy's use of double consciousness for our times, where “to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness”, returns us to Du Bois. In particular Du Bois' Pullman porter as a subject who reproduced both blackness and whiteness for a new American middle-class. Through Du Bois' post-slavery subject, whiteness could then read as a social process that learns to accommodate by "special codes and disciplines", renewing the principle of racial exclusivity to reproduce itself whilst dependent on non-white labour.

 

But the exceptionalism of an emergency lockdown forced a coming to surface of a racial underside - whereby to re-phrase Gilroy, it could now also read as “striving to be both European and white requires some specific forms of double consciousness”. In this Other scene of emergency it felt as though we were freed to witness whiteness without coloniality adrift from the frames by which it disguised its means of evolution. An evolution France Winddance Twine and Charles Gallagher explored through phases or waves to show the changing ways by which whiteness neutralises itself in a blindspot; to quote, “colour blindness as a political ideology is increasingly used to negate institutional racism or state reforms”. Thus whilst stats on inequality remain unchanged, “In the United States a majority of whites (71 per cent) believe blacks have ‘more’ or ‘about the same opportunities’ as whites”.
It was the unthinkable BLM downing of monuments by which a hitherto unthinkable 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. We would see this manifested 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

 

There was a sense that Black Lives Matter was no longer only a black civil rights movement, it had gone beyond that onto an all-encompassing stage of political transformation. The pandemic had produced a belief in the coming of a post-pandemic 'new normal'. But if this wasn't the expected pathway to the new normal, it had 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”, 20minutes.fr 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 laid its claim to transformation – whereby age per se becomes an index of revolutionary agency. Whereby the idea of 'choosing the society in which we want to live' is the radicalizing dimension of a class that can traverse the present and future. The material conditions that created this GenZ are not only neoliberal globalisation with its austerity, the digital revolution with its social media, but also the War on Terror. The War on Terror as an open ended war that embodies racialised reason and the colonial present, that demands its overtly racialised regime of policing to become the primary renewal site for whiteness and for blackness. The former for a preservation of the “western civilisation = white culture” equation; the latter as a factory of double consciousness for a generation that longs to be free of the inheritance of the colonial relation.

 

 

06.06.20 Archive

 

I have written of the time in the month of June 2020 as the Other Scene of Emergency; for that is what the thirty days of June really represented within a state of emergency. A heteronomous opening through which the politics of BLM arguably found a pass, a key to access what were protectionist spaces of our public debate. So that #blacklivesmatter could freely circulate with its hashtag. It became a consumable flavour of the month as corporate brands piled in with endorsements, even the hallowed national icons of English tea. Yorkshire tea and PG tips competed for affiliation with BLM as 'teagate' in a surreal theatre of media appropriation happy to overlook the modern slavery and its human trafficking that comes with the cuppa tea.
The disingenuity began to tell after the middle of June as the limits to the performative solidarity were becoming visible with calls to stop using the BLM hashtag. The Other Scene began to turn. We would see it when the BBC barred BLM badges from its screens at the end of the month after a BLM tweet on Palestine solidarity. 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 colonial production of blackness. Behind the studio curtain 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 a month, the Other Scene by the force of the double emergency slipped over into the Real Scene. It told us that the fight for the future could no longer lie with the state but in something beyond that. A force, a dimension which the time of this pandemic allowed a glimpse of.