“Ya’ll Ain’t Hearing Me”: White Liberalism and the Killing of Aura Rosser

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1. On November 9, three months to the day after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson executed Mike Brown, Ann Arbor police officers killed a black woman named Aura Rosser in her home on the west side of the city. The official story released by the police is that Aura “confronted” the officers with a “fish knife.” Her boyfriend dismissed that claim, demanding “Why would you kill her?” Aura’s sister noted that she had worked in the food service industry for years and loved to cook, especially when she was upset. It helped her relax. The police shot Aura as she was coming out of the kitchen. She was probably cooking seafood.

In spite of the ongoing rebellion against police violence in Ferguson and around the country, not much happened in the first couple weeks after the killing of Aura Rosser. The local media reported the story the way the cops told them to, criminalizing Aura and her boyfriend and speculating about toxicology reports. It’s a familiar script. Ann Arbor is a mostly white, liberal college town. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the organizing first started somewhere else. Far more racially and economically diverse, largely due to a legacy of segregated housing, Ypsilanti also bears more of the brunt of Washtenaw County’s policing apparatus. It was there that a group of activists calling themselves Radical Washtenaw organized the first demonstration in the area. It was a small gathering in downtown Ypsi, maybe about 40 or 50 people, who spent an hour holding signs, meeting each other and chanting to get the word out, writing emails and letters to the city council to demand justice.

What really kicked things off was the grand jury decision in Ferguson. Responding to the national call for actions in the wake, a small group of organizers called for a demo in Ann Arbor with the hope that 50 or 60 people might come out. It was set up as a “vigil” because the organizers weren’t sure there wouldn’t be enough people to march. Candles were acquired. But the grand jury decision was a spark that during the next 24 hours caught and spread like a prairie fire. The demo on November 25 was unlike anything folks have seen in Ann Arbor for years, even decades. Upwards of 1000 people came out to hear speeches by black, Palestinian, and Mexican students and community members articulate the specificities of anti-black racism and its overlaps with and divergences from other forms of racialized state violence both in the United States and abroad. Then, behind a glittery banner reading BLACK LIVES MATTER, the crowd easily took the streets and marched through downtown to the police station, blocking traffic the entire way.

There, a young black woman who had shared a jail cell with Aura Rosser grabbed the megaphone. “If you don’t know, we are at war! And you can’t fight war with peace. Tomorrow we go to war, ” she yelled. An older white woman in the crowd, a product of the New Left generation, yelled back, “No, tomorrow, we go to work, to work together.” The young woman responded, “Ya’ll ain’t hearing me.”

Energy was high after the march. An assembly was called for the following Friday, and 250 people showed up and collectively decided that the next action would take place at the Ann Arbor city council meeting on December 15. A smaller group of about 50 people signed up to organize the action. On a Monday night, in the middle of finals, 200 people came out and took the streets again. Chanting “How do you spell murder? A-A-P-D!” they again blocked the streets of downtown Ann Arbor until they pulled up outside the County Building where the meeting was being held. As chants of “No justice, no peace” echoed off the downtown town buildings, the mayor, agitated, came out, “Who is in charge of this?” “It’s America, you have the right to protest, but what are you planning on doing?” During the public comment section of the city council meeting, four demands were presented: fire the killer cop, suspend his paid leave, pay for the burial of Aura Rosser, and address the structural racism of policing in Washtenaw county. A second speaker called for three minutes of silence, one minute for each of Aura Rosser’s children. After fifteen seconds, the mayor tried to move on to the next agenda item. The gallery erupted into a volley of boos, feet stamping, and cries of “shame” and “three more minutes,” and he was forced to yield and sit quietly until the speaker stepped away from the podium.

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It’s worth pausing for a moment to emphasize how out of the ordinary this is. In this respect, Ann Arbor is a testament to the emptiness of liberal politics. Speaking at city council is preferred to rallies, and rallies are preferred over marches, and marches, when they do happen, happen on the sidewalk. One friend who grew up in Ann Arbor told us she couldn’t remember any marches like these. The anti-war protests in 2003 may have been a little bigger, she continued, but they had a totally different character.

Could Ferguson really be everywhere? ask the white liberals. Yes, white supremacy is at work even in a mostly white, liberal college town like Ann Arbor. But isn’t this the point? Of course policing is racist here. How could it be otherwise? If anything, it is in places like this that white supremacy is at its most intense. Following Saidiya Hartman, we might decide to look not to the “terrible spectacle” of racist killer cops and turn instead to “those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned.” This approach might lead us to consider, among other things, the anti-racist organizing that took place on the campus of the University of Michigan last year, without which none of what is happening in response to Aura’s killing would have been possible. The #BBUM campaign, to take one example, highlighted not only declining black enrollment at the university but also the daily experiences of racism of black students in this overwhelmingly white space. A black student from Detroit named Dan Green described the unsettling feeling of traversing and inhabiting this space: “I feel less safe in Ann Arbor than I do in Detroit.” The liberal white college town operates as a machine for the surveillance and policing of black bodies.

To express surprise that “this” could happen “here” is only to ignore or erase the historical processes of gentrification and the racialized production of surplus populations at work throughout southwest Michigan. “Ann Arbor” is not a place, governed autonomously by a progressive city council, but a node in a national and global network of capital flows and accumulations. The overwhelming whiteness of the city—in large part a function of the overwhelming whiteness of the university that dominates it—cannot be separated from the unthinkable quantities of capital that have pooled and congealed there, or the relative blackness and poverty of nearby Ypsilanti and Detroit. To put it another way, Ann Arbor itself is a testament to the fact that “this” has already happened “here.” It was “this” that made “here” what it is.

2. Every 28 hours police, security guards, or vigilantes kill a black person in the United States. Since the Ferguson rebellion popped off after the police execution of Mike Brown, this has become impossible to ignore. Protesters around the country chant “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!” a reference to Big Mike’s last gesture before being gunned down. And this has only intensified after the grand jury non-indictment of the cops who strangled Eric Garner to death on camera in New York.

One interesting dynamic in what’s been happening in Washtenaw County is that a movement has coalesced around the police killing of a black woman. Look at this list of small anti-police uprisings that have popped off in the country over the last five years—Oakland (2009), Portland (2010), Denver (2010), Seattle (2011), San Francisco (2011), Atlanta (2012), Anaheim (2012), Santa Rosa (2013), Flatbush (2013), Durham (2013), Salinas (2014), Albuquerque (2014)—and you’ll see that not one of them has a black woman at the center. Why has it been so difficult to mobilize public outrage for the black cis and trans* women extrajudicially killed by police? Why did the killing of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in nearby Detroit or Renisha McBride in nearby Dearborn Heights not elicit this response? What about the case of Adaisha Miller? Why has there been more outrage over and coverage of the killing of Tamir Rice but not that of Tanesha Anderson, both killed in November by Cleveland police? The point isn’t that Tamir Rice doesn’t deserve this attention but to spur us to think carefully about the affective conditions that make one life appear more valuable, more defensible, more grievable than another.

Alicia Garza, one of a group of black queer women that created the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, describes the movement this way:

Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.

However, even this movement—far from, at this point, being an uprising—that has come together around the killing of Aura Rosser has not changed the discourse around police killings here. In our marches we chant “Justice for Mike Brown” more than for Aura Rosser. In our meetings, we list the names of black men and boys—they are at the tip of our tongues. In our speeches we emphasize the danger the police pose to black men, while making the threat to black women, trans persons, and the disabled invisible. As Garza notes, hetero-patriarchy is alive and well within these movements. Will placing Aura Rosser’s name and life at the center of our organizing, change this? So far, in large measure, it hasn’t. But time will tell.

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3. The coalition that’s come together to organize around racist policing in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County more generally is politically diverse. Some folks seem to favor negotiations with the police and the city council and some are interested in demands for body cameras and civilian accountability commissions. Others of us are far less optimistic about official political channels or police “reforms.”

Ann Arbor, as we’ve said, is a liberal town. Even before their cops killed Aura, the city council had floated the idea of purchasing police body cameras. And at the December 15 city council meeting they made it official, signing a $174,000 contract with L3 Mobile-Vision, Inc., a company that markets its cameras not as a way to protect the populations subjected to continuous police surveillance, harassment, violence, torture, and death but rather as a way to “protect police officers.” As some Chicago copwatchers wrote in light of the uncritical acceptance of body cameras,

All reforms that strengthen the prison industrial complex must be strongly opposed. Body cameras will not halt extrajudicial executions by police officers, only providing us more horrific footage to view.  The only solution to oppressive policing is to abolish the institution.

The Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) is fully integrated into the structures of white liberal governance, in a city built on segregation and white supremacy. Take the case of the Dream Nite Club. In 2012, the officer who shot and killed Aura Rosser, David Ried, was named as a defendant, along with ten other police officers, the police chief, and the City of Ann Arbor, in a lawsuit filed by the Trinidadian-born owners of a club called Dream Nite Club. Located in downtown Ann Arbor, the club hosted events and DJ nights several nights a week that attracted a largely Black and Latin@ clientele. The suit documented dozens of incidents of explicit racism on the part of individual police officers, including Officer Ried, between 2009-2012. This included everything from racist language to physical violence. Officers frequently frisked, removed the clothes, and shined flashlights in the faces of black patrons in a threatening manner. They pushed black patrons at least 50 times during this period, pepper sprayed a group of 12 black women, and tased a black women without justification. AAPD also deployed squad cars in front of the bar, as many as 12 at a time on nights when the clientele was mostly black, in order to “intimidate the black patrons and further discourage their patronage.”

Like other officers named in the lawsuit, Ried formed an integral part of a racist police force, either actively or passively supporting racist language and activity. Not only did he not intervene when explicitly racist comments were made, but he was an active participant in the deployment of violence, and the threat of violence, against the club and the folks who passed through it. This was a determination that came from the top—the goal of the city and the police department was to shut down these “black-oriented nights.” Beginning in 2007, police officers began telling the club owners to get rid of these events. In 2010, two officers showed up at the club and the one in charge announced, “I am here to close this n****r bar down.” In 2011, the owners were approached by another officer, who stated “We’ll stop fucking with you if you stop throwing these black parties.”

The suit was dismissed by a district court. Citing the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the defense argued that the city and the police department had a material reason for their actions against the club that did not count as “racially-motivated” discrimination. In that case, Javaid Iqbal sued the federal government arguing that he had been detained in a maximum-security facility after the 9/11 attacks based on his race, religion, or national origin. The Supreme Court sided with the government against Iqbal, essentially agreeing that the state had a legitimate reason to profile the plaintiff. The judge cites Iqbal in dismissing the suit:

It should come as no surprise that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the [September 11, 2001] attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the purpose of the policy was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims.

Legal scholar Ramzi Kassem writes that “In one breath, the Iqbal Court not only acknowledged that Muslims were subject to heightened surveillance and monitoring as a result of law enforcement practices after 9/11, but also condoned the arrest, detention, and deportation of a large number of Muslim suspects as a necessary result of a legitimate counterterrorism policy.” He also shows that Iqbal has had a “sweeping impact” on the jurisprudential landscape. It has been cited tens of thousands of times by district courts like the one in Michigan that dismissed the Dream Nite Club lawsuit, and made it even more difficult for lawsuits based on racial discrimination to withstand a motion to dismiss. Through this juridical counterpart to the military equipment channeled to local police departments by the DOD through the 1033 program, the logic of counterterrorism has been embedded in the everyday policing practices of the liberal white city.

None of this, it’s worth mentioning, has appeared in media accounts related to the killing of Aura Rosser, despite the fact that the lawsuit comes up in the simplest Google search for the name David Ried. In any case, the point of these reflections isn’t to bring back the Dream Nite Club, which was forced to shut down in the wake of the lawsuit’s dismissal. Rather, it’s to highlight the invisibility of white supremacy as a structure of domination, substituting it for a thin notion of individual bias that is nearly impossible to prove. We’ve written that in the legal context race can only appear “as a disavowal, as (not) race.” A legally recognizable discourse of “public safety” is produced through forms of racialized policing that generate “objective” crime statistics and codify racial “truth.” Liberal white policing produces its racial raison d’etre.

The question that is facing the current movement in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County is if discussions with city council or programs to reform or better train the police force can eliminate structural racism. If not, the question then becomes what tactics can. Racism is not an inevitable result of ignorance or “natural” group dynamics but a social structure embedded in and expressed through material relations, and the police are necessarily implicated in the production and maintenance of this system. It is only through the abolition of the police and the carceral justice system, then, that this piece of white supremacy as a structure of domination can be eliminated.

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(thanks for the artwork)

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