Power, Punishment and Ferguson

The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown were appalling acts of injustice. The circumstances surrounding these two cases not only showed the deep flaws in the American judicial system, but also offers an interesting case study on the discourse surrounding power and punishment. In one of his most interesting works, Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault, presents an interesting lens through which we can analyze these cases, and the realities of power, punishment and race in the United States.

Foucault employed the concept of discourse in order to explain the social processes of legitimating power, through the construction of knowledge, truths, and a dominant narrative. Sometimes we can understand more about what is going on by examining what is being covered in the dominant narrative, and what is being left out.  Immediately following the Ferguson decision, news reports focused on riots and scenes of violence. What was lacking was an analysis of the socio-economic realities in the black community, or the statistics surrounding police brutality, or even an explanation of the procedures of a grand jury. Instead we are left with scenes of anger that exist in a vacuum, or meaningless debates which provide little context for a problem that is rooted in decades of injustice and inequality. The discourse surrounding the killings was just as appalling as the murders, as it negated the historical context in relation to state violence against African Americans and sensationalized the events inappropriately.

Notably absent in the discourse on these killings was a discussion of violence as a form of punishment as it relates to police and young black men. Foucault’s analysis of punishment does not focus so much on the repressive effects of punitive mechanisms, but stresses the importance of situating them in a whole series of effects which, “regard punishment as a  complex social function.” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish p. 23) Foucault presents an analysis which highlights the exercise of power in relation to punishment, and the need to view it was a “political tactic”. In this context, we can understand the manifestation of power between police and young black men not simply as isolated incidents, but as an act of violence between the “sovereign” or the state, and a “condemned” individual who is operating outside of the bounds of this state. In short Foucault urges an analysis which viewed punitive methods “on the basis of a political technology of the body” (Foucault p 24).

For a multitude of reasons many young black males in the ghetto operate outside the margins of mainstream power. They are relegated to illicit professions, or if extremely talented or fortunate obtain opportunities in entertainment and athletics. Their punishinability to succeed in a system which provides little in the way of guidance, opportunity, or support forces them into the role of an “outsider”, who must operate outside the bounds of the current system. In fact Foucault makes reference to the inevitability of failure for those who fall outside the bounds of society, and are setup to fail and end up in prison.  The concept of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is synonymous with Foucault’s comments that “Detention causes recidivism” as opposed to reforming individuals. In fact Foucault wrote extensively on the ways in which schools, factories and prisons took on similar forms of organization, structure and discipline. As a result young black males are products of a system of power in which they are condemned to fail.

Foucault notes, “In the darkest region of the political field, the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king.” (Foucault p. 23) The young black male exists at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of what mainstream american society accepts as legitimate and successful. The police in his community are not there to protect him. They are there to punish him. To protect property from him. Both individuals in this case, Mike Brown and Eric Garner were accused of petty crimes, but resisted arrest, likely as an expression of lifelong feelings of entrapment and stress. Yet these transgressions were repeatedly cited by various pundits as a legitimization for the officers actions.

The grand jury’s decisions were indicative of more than the facts surrounding each of these cases.   Foucault notes that such judicial decisions represent “ the binary opposition of the permitted and the forbidden”(Foucault p. 183)  The decision differentiates one group of individuals from one another, and manifests the reality of power relations particular to the state and society.  In other words, the decision not to issue an indictment is a clear indication that violence from police officers and the state is permitted, and even the slightest form of resistance from young black men is not.

The feelings of rage, anger and frustration are a manifestation of something which White America does not understand, and therefore fears. Just as they feared and demonized Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Foucault references these feelings when discussing the state of prisoner and his rage against the system. “When he sees himself exposed in this way to suffering…he becomes habitually angry against everything around him; he sees every agent of authority as an executioner…” (Foucault p. 266). Yet the sovereign can not tolerate any form or resistance, and as a result enacts punishment onto the body of the condemned.

The fact remains that these killings illicit outrage and anger, not because they are unique, but because they are far too common. They are not isolated incidents, but just the latest examples of decades of injustice, abuse and violent state power against a disenfranchised minority.  Foucault points out that the discourse surrounding this form of punishment coupled with the manifestations of power in essence normalizes this type of “justice”. “The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchies, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes.” (Foucault p. 183).  As a result, we should understand the grand jury verdicts not as an anomaly, or some form of mistake. The decisions are in fact representations of the reality of the society we live in. One in which the murder of young black men by the police is normalized and legitimized by the state, the judiciary, the media, and power.

Hamid Yazdan Panah is an attorney, human rights activist, and refugee residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Hamid Yazdan Panah is a human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay area.

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