Michael Brown is the eighteen year old from Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot by police seven or eight times for not walking on the sidewalk. This week, the officer responsible was not indicted by a jury. Eric Garner is the visibly unarmed man who was choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island, New York, after repeatedly stating that he couldn’t breath. The choke hold is banned. The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. This week, the officer responsible was not indicted by a jury. Discard Studies is the art and science of looking at how cultural and economic systems continually value some things over others, declare some things waste and not others, externalize some costs and not others. It is about how these systems come into being and how they are maintained. It is about the effects and costs of these systems. This week, as the two failures to indict police offers who clearly used brutal force to kill unarmed black men rolled in, it is clear that black lives are systematically devalued in the legal system, making them the proper domain of Discard Studies. As Albert Berkemo has written:
The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sam Shepherd, and countless thousands of others at the hands of American law enforcement are not aberrations, or betrayals, or departures. The acquittals of their killers are not mistakes. There is no virtuous innermost America, sullied or besmirched or shaded by these murders. This is America. It is not broken. It is doing what it does.
Bodies of color are out of place in this system. They are dirt. The same behaviors done by different bodies are not taboo (see the hash tag #CrimingWhileWhite, a response to this double standard within what is allegedly a system for universal justice). This is a call, grounded in my own speechlessness, for scholars to articulate the conditions under which the seemingly extreme cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not anomalies, but symptoms of a wider system of values that dictate which lives are disposable and which are not, what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It is also a call to take to the streets. As Mary Douglas has taught us, “dirt” is all about maintaining good citizenship. The failure to indict is a clear statement that no crime has been committed: police brutality is an acceptable form of citizenship. But it isn’t. It’s dirty. It’s filthy. It is time to march, and to write.