Obeisence

by zunguzungu

A helpful text for thinking about why Trayvon Martin died, and the impunity his killer enjoys:

“Probable cause” signifies that, in any police situation, all the authority of the law can be brought to bear on a targetted individual through the person of the cop and the cop’s self-involvement in that situation. Once detained, any police directive must be obeyed by the person detained. “Disobeying an officer” is a crime. In other words, once detained, any police directive translates into law. Refusal or resistance to a directive subjects a person to possible arrest, punishment (such as beating), or both. Thus, the police have the ability to create legal standards for street encounters through probable cause that then have the weight of actual law. That is, the police directive constitutes a cop’s ability to make law in the moment…

This gives the police the ability to transform a person under suspicion (already profiled) into a de facto criminal at will. The cop has but to find a directive that an individual will resist simply out of self-respect, a sense of dignity or justice, or a feeling that the directive is extreme and unwarranted. Such a stance will be construed as disobedience, and be cause for arrest, the use of painful restraints, torture with pepper spray, and charges of resisting arrest. If the officer choses to beat the person, the person can then be charged with assaulting the officer since the judicial presumption is that an officer will use violence to make an arrest only in self-defense. The cop’s use of violence becomes presumed evidence that the cop was threatened or assaulted.

Thus an individual not only becomes captive to the legal system through the cop’s noticing and profiling but, in being constrained to absolute obedience, can be criminalized and subjected to arrest in fact for defense of his/her dignity, self-respect, or sense of justice. Defense of one’s humanity or self-respect can also be construed as an actual assault on the law if the officer decides to assault that self-respect violently. This goes beyond the mere criminalization of behavior that it relies on; it constitutes the ability to criminalize a person’s personhood and sense of justice itself.

Thus, profiling and its attendant aggressiveness imply that the police have arrogated to themselves the power to determine who will be human, whose self-respect will be respected, whose autonomy and independence will go unpunished, and whose not. While the overt nature of this self-arrogation of power is a demand for obedience, its overall political import is a demand for obeisence. Obeisence differs from obedience in the same way profiling differs from law enforcement. In obedience, one stands as a person in relation to that which one obeys; in obeisence, one abandons one’s standing as a person to the transcendent meaning of an icon or concept to which one must abject oneself. In disobedience, one only criminalizes oneself; non-obeisence becomes a criminalized status imposed gratuitously by the institution that demands obeisence.

This returns us to the question of impunity. “Impunity” is not simply a result of police departments offering internal solidarity to those officers who act with brutality or criminalize people. It names the hyper-political context in which the police not only stands above both police regulations and legal prohibitions against torture or murder, but become a law unto themselves, to which they can demand obeisence.