“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.

march 2

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.

march 1

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

  1. I had a chuckle at the ‘new left’ woman. There is no new Left. The New Left were social democrats (radical liberals claiming to be Marxists) so they could push their liberal capitalist ideology further.

    As a Communist I sadly come across these individuals all of the time. In fact with the exception of the League for the Fourth International which itself is a fairly new group, I haven’t found a legitimate Socialist group that isn’t really a social democrat in disguise.

    These guys are everywhere and useless. The Communist Party USA which used to be a legit organ of Revolutionary activity went the way of sellout a long time ago courtesy of Stalin. They even supported Obama and the democrats as a ‘revolutionary’ alternative against the Republicans.

    Liberals are more dangerous than Conservatives because ultimately, like heart worms they infiltrate organs of Revolution and weaken, change them, or destroy them altogether. The Mexican Brown Berets used to be radical like the Black Panthers, now they’re just democrats dressed as rebels. And the list goes on. Lenin, Marx, Trotsky may all have been white guys, but they were right when they said a true Revolutionary group has to reject Bourgeois Liberalism.

    The only other thing I would add here is that it’s not just the police that must be dismantled, the whole Regime and the impure materialist, racist, classist, culture it created needs to be destroyed also. The Cops and Soldiers are the Armed wings of the Regime, but removing them will not change the system just weaken it till they get new soldiers and police. This whole hell hole was built on Genocide, Slavery, Racial, Sexual, and Class exploitation. Lenin said:

    “Reforms are Capitalist tricks to strip the people of power, Revolution is the only way,”

    All Reforms do is recycle the dirty system we already live in. So only an overly idealistic fool will believe that negotiations with the oppressors will change anything. Since when has that ever worked anywhere? Capitalists encourage it but they also point out that Liberals in Cuba and China who do that accomplish nothing while also saying ‘we’ (as in them) need to fund armed militias to tear ‘our’ (their) enemies down.

    So when we want to start an uprising to strike down the system, we’re told to stand down and be peaceful even by sellouts like Sharpton who call violence against the state betrayal of the Movement. But these same parasites funnel money into Terror groups in other countries to overthrow Regimes they deem cant be reasoned with. The hypocritical double standard continues.

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  3. Yet another article completely ignores the presence of Asians. Ann Arbor is 14.4% Asian, with the second highest concentration of Japanese people in Michigan. Blacks are only 7% of Ann Arbor. But of course Asians are invisible and don’t count as minorities, even though they are racially profiled just as heavily. University of Michigan, however, did make at least one step towards eliminating racism: getting rid of affirmative action.

    • You act as if this writer is purposely ignoring Asians. This individual is writing on the lack of attention of black women and gays being killed or accosted. I’m sure someone here will write about Racism against Asians as well.

      But you coming here to an article that is focused on something else to complain about the lack of focus on Asians is like me going to an Asian focused article and complaining about the lack of focus on the Spanish. It’s ridiculous.

      And please explain how removing affirmative action is supposed to end racism?

    • What is the rate of extra-judicial killing of Asians by police in the US? do you know the name of one who was killed in Ann Arbor?

      • PLEASE do not use the plight of Asians to deride the important conversation that is going on in the US and reverberating (at least up north, if not globally). As an Asian-Canadian who heralds from a city (Vancouver, Canada) where a vietnamese man was killed by city police within a couple weeks of the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s murder, we ALL stand to gain from the important struggle of our courageous black sisters and brothers to expose and dismantle systemic racial profiling and violence by police, as upheld by legal and other institutions. As the signs held at the vigil in Vancouver reading ‘#Blacklivesmatter’ Asians there understood that we need to show solidarity towards this liberation struggle, rather than dilute it. Also, look up the ever-popular tweet by Arthur Chu about #alllivesmatter, it says things better than I can.

        Look, I want to acknowledge your point, that Asians living in North America have their own experiences of legalized discrimination, profiling, exclusion and marginalization; however,it cannot be compared and must not be used to overshadow the centuries-long-legacy of a legal and cultural framework rooted in slavery and all the brutal violence and de-humanization involved in maintaining that system. But it’s not a competition of the minorities, and like José above stated, you want to write about structural discrimination against Asians, by all means! Don’t do it in a way to dilute or attack this post or others like it, you are only rendering service to structural racism by doing so.

        As for your comment about affirmative action, I wholeheartedly disagree with you: http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/11/21/asian-american-refusing-join-anti-affirmative-action-fight

  4. I recognize that discussions with city council and police force reform programs may be ineffective methods to combat pervasive structural racism, but is the complete abolition of the police and carceral justice system really the best solution? Doesn’t abolition of this system leave our society vulnerable in numerable other ways? This article is incredibly intelligent and the argument is sound- our current judicial system is often manipulated by dominant whites and used as a tool to maintain that white domination- but absolute elimination of the system would seem to leave gaping structural holes.

    Please correct me if I misinterpreted the author’s argument or solution. I admit that I could be very wrong in my analysis of the article.

  5. All of this article is good but i still think until the 1033 program is suspended indefinitely n police r subject to rutine psych evals n for them to go threw intensive training includin a actual ceiminal justice class of the laws not juss city ordanances i mean the constitution bill of right and the states constitution

    • What are you talking about? The article specifically says the claim the boyfriend dismissed was that she confronted the cops with a knife. And here’s what he says in the interview you linked to: “They opened the door and said police. She turned towards them and they fired.” She didn’t confront them. Stop spreading lies about what happened.

  6. THE RESURRECTION OF ROBESPIERRE, EH? YOU CHOOSE TO IGNORE THE POWER OF HUMAN INTELLECT, THE HUMAN HEART AND THE HUMAN MIND AND THE CAPACITY COLLECTIVELY TO TRANSFORM TOWARD ENLIGHTENMENT…DEBALKANIZATION OF US VOTERS AND INTEREST BASED POLITICS BASED NOT ON GENETICS BUT FUNDAMENTAL CORE PRINCIPLES OF DEMOCRATIC ENLIGHTENMENT I NELIEVE WOULD BE A MORE USEFULL AND IMMEFIATE OBJECTIVE.

  7. As much as I agree with this article, I disagree with the abolishment of policing and the justice system.

    There are workable models throughout the world, even if ours is unjust. Anarchy serves to liberate no one.

    Besides, in our lifetime the minorities will be the majority. Like in Northern Ireland, time will result in a turnover in control… the period we are in now is the lead-up to that where the powers that exist are tightening their grip for the last stand that they know will end in a loss.

    There is justice to be had now. There is no reason to sit idly by and wait, but I can “hear you” and still disagree that we cannot abolish police and our criminal justice system.

    Positional politics are a great deal of what can be considered causes of the current crisis. To respond with the same heavy-handed positional adherences and rhetoric is both an ideological and moral failure.

    I’m supportive of someone feeling this desperate and determined to say something absolute and reactionary. I cannot refute that level of emotion or commitment.

    But it does not serve the cause of the pursuit of justice. Getting to “yes” does not mean war, it means seeking common ground. We must find an interest-based solution.

  8. I am honestly trying to understand this as a non-racist white person who believes racism exists and occurs but I have been under the impression that it wasnt something that occured 100% to POC. Now I think it is probably a great deal more pervasive than i think, at least a majority percentage. My question is–I also believe only a small percentage of police officers are racists, and also that where a department protects them I have to ask, is it more to do with “police brotherhood” (the thin blue line), or is it as you have stated–system wide, institutional racism? I think maybe somewhere in between but then again, i try to be reasonable in most things.

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  11. You have a lot of dots here and some pretty shady connections. There are plenty of things I could talk about in this, but I found the section about the lawsuit to be particularly poorly represented. All your evidence comes from the complainant’s suit. You do know anyone can file a lawsuit and say whatever they want in it, right? I took about five mins to scan that and the judge’s decision and the officer in question was only named once and that is as being present when another officer made a racist comment. It says nothing about his reaction to said comment, or his participation in anything racist. When you read the whole thing, it seems like a lot of BS. Finding one dismissed case against a police department does not, as you say, prove that “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.” And certainly not that,”Ried formed an integral part of a racist police force, either actively or passively supporting racist language and activity.” If officers were walking around using language like that in such a liberal town, don’t you think there’d be more complaints? What other cases have you found? Did you FOIA request this officer’s excessive force complains, or complaints about racism or civil rights violations? I’m guessing the real journalists have already done that and found nothing.

    I wasn’t looking to tear this article down when I read it. I just don’t think it’s very enlightening like some others, in fact I think it’s intentionally misleading. I also think it’s pretty incendiary and completely unethical to accuse an individual or institution of such heinous racism with so little evidence. I actually believe institutional racism exists, but you don’t convince me it exists in Ann Arbor, or that Ms. Rosser was a victim of it with this post.

    But, I guess when your thesis is to disband the police, we weren’t going to see eye to eye, anyway. I do commend you on your writing abilities. Your argument needs work.

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