Convergence / Health / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

The Interlude

Duron Jackson, Bone Crusade

Image Credit: Duron Jackson, Bone Crusade. (2025). Courtesy of the artist.

Until last week’s uprising, the quarantine had felt like living in an interlude, a present haunted by the potentiality of what seemed to be surely to come. Such interludes comprise the texture of living haunted by the imminent possibility of violence manifesting as confrontation or preventable death. Paraphrasing Zora Neale Hurston, some times ask questions, others answer. The answer clarifies what the initial queries lacked. That the pandemic would work in conjunction with racist social and legal structures to create disproportionate health outcomes seemed inevitable. That social distancing mandates enforced by police disproportionately target communities affected by pandemic-related layoffs was similarly predictable. When the protests to “reopen the economy” began with armed reactionaries storming capitol buildings in states with primarily Democratic leadership, and with the president lustily supporting them with calls to “liberate,” I continued to feel haunted by a sense of waiting, of awaiting profane fulfillment, a sense of being in the nontime between acts, in this case the acts of state and extra-state violence. The interlude is not exactly about anticipation or dread, but it is more precisely a modality of life itself. Waiting: for a life to be taken, for a life to appear, for the loved one to come home safe, or not. To this we can add the anxious time of quarantine, of waiting for unemployment benefits, for symptoms to manifest or not, for good or bad news.

The heart contracts and expands. First came reports of Ahmaud Arbery, shot to death in Georgia, way back in February, by self-deputized white men. Just under three weeks later, plainclothes police officers murdered Breonna Taylor in her home while executing a no-knock warrant in Louisville, KY. Police in Tallahassee, FL gunned down Tony McDade. Police officers in Minneapolis, MN, suffocated George Floyd, accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes from a corner store. Protests followed, met by police riots–resulting in not simply “escalation” but also provocative actions meant to assert dominance over the oppressed, whether engaged in crimes or not.1 The event I had anticipated has emerged, connecting “reopen” protests, state power further consolidated through intensified surveillance power, and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on black and minority communities.

Robin D.G. Kelley’s analysis following Missouri’s unsurprising refusal to hold anyone responsible for Michael Brown’s murder provides a useful context:

[W]hat we are dealing with is nothing less than permanent war waged by the state and its privatized allies on a mostly poor and marginalized Black and Brown working-class. […] Crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation, and gross misrepresentation.22

The permanent war Kelley describes is plainly visible to all, in novel and intensified forms. Sites of incarceration are major vectors of infection for inmates and the guards whose labor our society’s love of punishment makes “essential.” Kelley’s “occupation” refers to a murderous police presence; the surveillance state expands, and its violent measures in the name of a fragmentary public seem all the more justified to a people who desire security rather than the sense of safety that can come only from living in a just society.. Before police in riot gear, the National Guard, and other agents of the security state rolled onto the streets, workers were being forced to choose between returning to jobs where they might contract a deadly virus (thus becoming vectors of contagion in their communities) and starving to death because their “voluntary” refusal to risk their lives disqualifies them from receiving unemployment benefits. This reveals a bitter truth: Some are willing to let many of us die quickly and painfully in support of a system that will kill all of us slowly. Too many of us will call the choice between agonizing and protracted death “freedom.”

The rhetorical framing of the pandemic response as war has become all too literal. People with the fewest resources have been asked to shoulder the bulk of the burden. But what is the nature of the crisis? Among other things, this is the organic crisis of the policies and governmentalities that shrink the legitimate sphere of government, reduce the scale and robustness of those institutions that help people weather long-term shared crises. The default posture is to blame the poor for bad outcomes as the result of bad choices or bad “culture” rather than policy. Faced with an enduring crisis where many ordinary people now face unemployment, delinquency, and homelessness, owing to no fault of their own, the alternatives are to conclude that they are deficient, or to invest more fully in others’ delinquency. As resources dwindle, no doubt some people feel they have to “risk”–as if it were just a personal decision–going back to work to survive. They also want to maintain a sense of themselves and the world they understand. There is no going back.

The current uprisings and police response reflect the more fundamental economic and political crisis that has simmered for years and decades. Policing plays a key role in racial management, but it’s more fundamental function is to ensure uninterrupted capitalist accumulation and circulation. It secures relationships between whiteness and private property, and doing so produces unimpeded white enjoyment as ideal. Even prior to the quarantines, white beleaguerment had emerged as a structure of feeling–a way of relating legal norms, social convention, and forms of representation into semi-coherent, not-quite-articulate forms. That structure of feeling represents an objective social and economic crisis in familiar racial terms. If things are going badly, it’s because some undeserving group is taking too much. In the face of the coronavirus, forgoing haircuts and tattoos is trivial unless one recognizes what those demonstrations share with the woman who leveraged her whiteness to marshal the murderous forces of the state against Christian Cooper, a desire to preserve white enjoyment.

If we can best understand the anti-quarantine demonstrations in light of the desire to make sure the right people die so the present racial order can survive, the current uprisings resist the will to expression, to encoding, to recuperation into the present state of affairs. These are the first genuine COVID-19 uprisings. Collective grief, frustration and anxieties over being compelled to work and live in conditions that make their premature deaths inevitable–what Friedrich Engels termed “social murder”– is catalyzed by the racist ideologies, distilled in police actions, that explain away their status as a semi-permanent underclass. These are the workers, “essential” and otherwise, who also know they are structurally disposable, ungrievable as death or life.

During the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, many commentators took to social media to lament the impossibility of such uprisings in the US. Those people have apparently forgotten police response to similar uprisings in Baltimore, in Ferguson, and elsewhere. They have apparently forgotten the police response to Occupy. How will they remember the current uprisings, taking place in almost every major city across the nation and internationally, with people risking their health owing at once to the virus’s deadly potential and the police itself? Such active forgetting also secures white enjoyment.

In the weeks and months following this crisis, our airwaves and social media feeds will fill with interviews and profiles of officials whose callousness, indifference, ineptitude, or ineffectiveness led to many avoidable deaths. Governments and media outlets will busily rehabilitate the police by canonizing “heroes” whose quick-thinking resourcefulness averted further tragedy. We will hear requisite accounts of “outside agitators” to explain away, delegitimate, and ultimately forget the realities of rage in the streets. We’ll see more obscene spectacles of police in riot gear embracing the people they brutalize, more obscene spectacles of the police taking a knee, drawing attention to the very instrument of George Floyd’s death. We will be asked not to think from the perspectives of the majority lost to the virus of the more fundamental crisis. People will cite the immensity of the crisis and present statistics about its unprecedented nature. Stories like these produce spectacular focal points that make unthinkable the quotidian struggles that constitute the recursive time of social murder: the interlude. The other side of this crisis, the period following the event that now envelops us, cannot be a return to the “normal” that has heretofore defined our lives. We are in the interval, a time of grieving the world we must leave behind in order to shape the world we must build.

Works Cited
1 Dessem, Matthew. “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide” Slate, May 31, 2020. Accessed June 2, 2020.
2 Kelley, Robin D. G. “Why We Won’t Wait” Counterpunch, November 25, 2014. Accessed May 11, 2020.

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