As a field of knowledge deeply implicated in racial violence, anthropology has a particular responsibility to educate students on the current and historical status of black lives. Given the fact that liberal arts education is shrinking in this country and – I am sure this will resonate with other colleagues – courses on “black issues” are not a priority. Thus, we should be prepared to incorporate the critical theme of antiblack police violence in a cross-curricula perspective. It will require creativity and audacity to address institutional obstacles and ensure that students do not leave college without exposure to critical discussions on policing and racial terror. It is even more important if one is teaching students from outside of our field because this may be the only opportunity these students may have to be challenged on their antiblack common sense.
When teaching “Cultural Anthropology,” for instance, I make sure to incorporate such discussions in the structure of the course. Not necessarily in this order, my course is thematically organized around colonialism, global white supremacy, and racialized policing practices. As an ‘international’ scholar, I try to bring to the classroom some transnational perspective that both provincializes and puts the African American experience into a broader context. I encourage colleagues to do the same. There is a need to expose our students to the global dimensions of policing and its relation to the U.S. imperial order. Some pedagogical/theoretical strategies that I use include the discussion of a short piece by Catherine Lutz, “Making war at home in the United States,” in which she calls attention to the intimate relation between U.S. global power and its domestic police force.
This is a critical text for students to unpack the category “freedom,” which is the core of racial terror. Why should students in American classrooms care about the fate of Palestinian, Afghani, Pakistani, and Iraqi lives? What does the killing of a black man selling cigarette in Staten Island, New York have to do with the U.S. training program given to police officers in Brazil? How do we connect an anthropological discussion of “culture” with such global logic of disposability? Military technologies that are tested on the “other” at home are also used abroad in the same way that counter-insurgency practices tested abroad are deployed to police black, Latino, and other people of color at home. This does not mean that we should lose our focus on the unique black experience, but rather that we should invite awareness and solidarity with wasted lives elsewhere that hold profound connections to policed lives at home.
A second thematic strategy that I deploy is to push my students to engage with the following question: Who is the subject of police protection? My understanding is that it is impossible to discuss antiblack police violence in the classroom without discussing white privilege and white civil life. I wish there were more texts available that ethnographically address the intimate relation between whiteness and police terror. As expected from a discipline invested in othering some category of people, there is a lack of ethnographic engagement with this critical question. Thus, to a certain extent, this is also a call for our discipline to consider such an endeavor. The key text – not in the field of anthropology and not easily accessible to undergraduate students – that has strong influence in my teaching and research is “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy” by Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton. This text is an urgent and timely contribution to the current dilemma that black activists face when trying to mobilize civil society to redress police brutality perpetrated in the very name of civil society. This text is even timelier for understanding the current manifestations of white nationalism.
I also make sure students understand the political economy of police violence. “Taking Back the Land,” by Joao Costa Vargas, provides a compelling discussion of the socioeconomic logic of police violence against Afro-Brazilians in the context of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic preparations. In this text, colleagues will find it useful to unpack how urban planning policies are translated into the symbolic and literal erasing of black bodies from (their right to) the city. Likewise, I always find it disturbingly useful to show to my students the documentary Bus 174, which describes how symbolic, structural, and police violence comes into play in Brazil’s African Diaspora. This is a punch in the stomach. The documentary always generates a heated debate, and I always receive comments from students on how they felt impacted by the film. Even in cases where students react by cheering on the police for ‘doing its work’ or angry at them for not killing the criminal ‘properly,’ it has proven to be a powerful pedagogical moment to question their idea of justice and social vengeance. I suggest colleagues explore silence after the screening as a pedagogical tool.
Finally, since I am addicted to looking for glimpses of hope, a text that I find useful to inspire students to join the struggle is THE FIRE THIS TIME, which is part six of Robert Gooding-Williams’ edited volume, Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. In fact, the whole edited volume could be easily used as an introduction to policing and antiblackness in the United States, with Judith Butler’s “Endangered/Endangering” being a critical intervention on the centrality of the black body in such a regime of racial terror. As we teach such critical themes, we should keep in mind the necessity to translate the insights learned in the classroom into practices. I encourage my students to participate in on campus and community activism by asking them to reflect on how we might ethically respond to the killings of black youth in the name of protecting white lives.
In the summer of 2015, some students from one of my classes played an important role in helping to organize “Insurgencies: Policing and Pedagogies of Resistance in the Americas,” a two-day seminar bringing together activists and scholars from Brazil, Colombia, Central America, Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. I hope that even tied to institutions and bureaucracies themselves implicated in antiblackness, we find the time and strength to translate our teaching into a daily commitment to honor the dead and to motivate our students on the right and duty of changing the world. In dear Paulo Freire’s words, the world is not finished!Jaime Alves is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. He holds a PhD in Anthropology and Black Studies from The University of Texas/Austin. His research interests include racialized policing practices, mass incarceration and black urban life in Brazil and Colombia. As an activist anthropologist he has worked with the black movement and abolitionist projects in Brazil, Colombia, and the United States. As a journalist, he has contributed to alternative newspapers in Brazil and written regularly on his blog “com raiva e paciencia” (with anger and patience). You can find his research in the Journal of Latin American Studies, Journal of Black Studies, Revist do Departamento de Geografia, and Revista Ciencias Sociales.