The explosion of rioting and protest following the killing of George Floyd shows the fragility of US political relations and the extent to which nihilistic subjectivism – the displacement of a national subject in favour of different tribal and identity-focused conflagrations – have infected US political discourse. George Floyd’s killing as another example of police brutality was the inflection point for this to erupt, with the causal mechanisms multiplicitous and dispersed. The history of racial violence, segregation, community segmentation and deprivation are clear throughout much of the US urban geography. The limited distribution of wealth combined with the containment of gang violence and malinvestment within black neighbourhoods has created powder kegs which have regularly burst, from the civil rights-era riots to more recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore.
However the extent of destruction and violence within these riots present greater comparisons to the LA riots in 1992 or even the 2011 UK riots, where the powder keg of racial tension was lit by a relatively small event (in the wider context of police relations with black communities where previous examples of police brutality and inequality of treatment hadn’t been met with such violent ire) exploded into a kaleidoscope of violent outbursts informed by a nihilistic surge where the disconnect between community and individual was laid bare. This goes beyond the idea of a race riot and is more an expression of the “rabble” who are outside the norms of organised space, whether these be capitalist property norms, the track of education-career-retirement or the binding sense of community related to one’s neighbourhood/home.
This is expressed in the organisations part of the protests and riots, Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Both are functional franchises through which different groups communicate and organise. Describing them as terrorist organisations is only apt in the sense that like Al Qaeda, they are a name for a wider multiplicity of tendencies which aren’t necessarily linked into one unit. They represent to varying degrees both an “advanced marginality”, whereby social institutions are fragmented and dissolved amongst black and working-class neighbourhoods, leaving “all manners of insecurity (economic, social, criminal, sanitary, housing, etc.”, and a political tribalisation where binaries are fracturing as the centre of political conflict spirals into multiple directions. The Trump presidency is another catalytic element that contributes to these riots, as he is the spectre of a greater American right-wing populism that represents an inversion of the typical political dialogue. This isn’t the reconstruction of a new oppositional politics so much as the deconstruction of a meaningful binary through which they entwine. This can be seen in the preceding conflicts in Portland or Charlottesville between Antifa-based groups and right-wing/fascist groups, or in the reactions to coronavirus lockdowns in American cities where parts of the American militia movement, the dying embers of the Tea Party movement and other sections of the pro-Trump demographic staged armed protests demanding the reopening of businesses and the maintenance of capitalist relations at the microcosm.
Rather than a riot purely focused on black lives or police brutality, these conflicts have fractured into the dynamic tension between different tribes and the narratives they proscribe, as well as exploring the extent of generational inequality, racial divides and the purpose of urban geography (is it to be a strip mall or somewhere affordable to live). In Wacquant’s language this is the meeting point of habitus, “the system of socially constituted ‘schemata of perception, appreciation and action enabling us to effect the acts of practical knowledge’ that guide us in the social world”. The habitus of those rioting is in direct contradiction to those other groups mentioned, the right-wing protestors demanding a return to normality and the reoperation of a business ontology. “Black bodies and businesses face off to insist on which mode of destruction is a more horrifying spectacle”. And further than this, it is the expression of a decentred political arena. The ability to hold grievances through accountability and demand political action (which has always had mirage-like qualities) appears entirely farcical in the double bind of a closed-off capitalism that is stagnating (and in coronavirus partially collapsing) and a political spectre that is little more than fodder for entertainment and tribal conflict. The stirrings of this in the current riots are already beginning to foment.
As with the 2011 UK riots, “the riots were multiplicitous, with spatial and temporary locational elements playing a large part in how people reacted. Thus you cannot characterise the riots that occurred in London the same way as those that occurred in Birmingham or Manchester. As recognised by the Reading the Riots report, ‘although mainly young and male, those involved in the riots came from a cross-section of local communities. Just under half of those interviewed in the study were students. Of those who were not in education, 59% were unemployed’. Characterising the riots as simply ‘race riots’ misses the point, and doesn’t follow the realities, where young white people were rioting alongside young black people”. Rather an expression of nihilistic anomie potentially comes to the fore, as the background of postmodern capitalism and its closing off of both binding narratives and meaningful action develops pitfalls of tribalistic outbursts and destruction.
Edmund Berger traces the movement from hyperspace to the hypercrowd. “The hypercrowd, this viscous, unintelligble mass of bodies, flows through the vertigous abstraction of the hyperspace, with their actions no longer conditioned by direction-giving order and signs”, and is analogous to the networked society of political and social nodes in postmodernity, where connections are transitory and elusive. The hypercrowd’s movements can “be broadened to the strange and (then) new circulations put in place by de-spatialized labor, congestion in cyclopean highways and urban sprawl, the raucus tumult of the shopping mall, etc.”. Maybe in the conflicts of the US currently we are seeing the development of the hyper-riot, as the spatial flows of hyperspace are targeted and destroyed. These riots are neither directed nor are they narrativistically focused. They are informed by a series of inflection points and grounded within a swirling vortex of historical inequalities, racial divisions and political tribalisms that are enveloping and decentring political cartographies. This goes in lockstep with processes of the de-securitisation of marginal livelihoods and the increasing segmentation of space to police and ghettoise it. The potential parallels to the anti-lockdown protests and microcosm of conflicts between different populistic forces are also interesting and in need of further exploration.